Back to school

Tough on Truants


A version of this story ran in the September 2013 issue.

The lazy days of summer are over, and about five million Texas students are headed back to school. And if they skip class, Texas law is there to reel them back in. Truancy has been a crime in Texas since 2003, so children and their families risk hefty fines for missing school too often. Fines can run hundreds of dollars, but across the state—and even within a single district—the cost of a ticket and the method of punishment vary greatly.

A civil-rights complaint filed in June and reports by The Dallas Morning News and ProPublica brought fresh attention to the harsh punishment for truancy in North Texas, where state records say nearly half of the state’s truancy cases originate.

Texas Appleseed and two other groups filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice on behalf of students, accusing Dallas’ truancy courts of ordering excessive punishment. Truant students in Dallas risk being tried as adults and could end up with a criminal record, serve jail time, or be saddled with more than $1,000 in fees after not being provided proper legal counsel. The groups insist that minority students, students from low-income families and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by truancy enforcement, alleging the current system is an unconstitutional form of “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Outside North Texas, many other districts report high truancy numbers too. Texas Education Agency records show Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), Pasadena ISD, Amarillo ISD, San Antonio’s Northside ISD and Ector County ISD all have a higher number of truancy charges than other school districts of the same size. It’s impossible to know from the data how far from the norm they are, though, because the state’s database is woefully incomplete. Texas has more than 1,000 school districts, but only about 250 are listed in TEA’s most recent truancy report. Of those, more than 80 reported no truant students. Conroe ISD, with more than 50,000 students, isn’t listed at all.

“I think [our numbers are high] because we’re one of the few that’s actually enforcing the compulsory attendance laws,” said Ernie Rodriguez with Fort Bend ISD. “I think if other school districts around the state would really examine their attendance information, they would probably find that they’re not filing the mandatory complaints as required by law.”

For example, Ector ISD in West Texas has nearly 30,000 students, and reported more than 1,200 truancy cases during the last school year. Houston ISD, with an enrollment of nearly 200,000, reported only 614 truancy cases. Are students in Odessa skipping school that much more than kids in Houston?

Houston ISD Police Chief Jimmy Dotson said his district has made a point of issuing fewer tickets for truancy.

Following a Texas Appleseed report released a few years ago, he said, the district chose not to criminalize students skipping school. The district leaves it to administrators to work with students who don’t show up.

Texas is one of just two states that criminalize truancy, which ties districts’ hands once they report a truant student, said Brian McGiverin of the Austin Lawyers Guild. He’s helping to defend truant students who get roped into the criminal justice system.

“Honestly, I think truancy issues are criminalized in Texas because we have a hammer, we have one tool in the tool shed, and we like to use it an awful lot,” McGiverin said. “Criminalizing truancy is probably the result of that basic mindset: If there’s something we don’t like, we deal with it by making it a crime.”