Truancy Decriminalization Bill Could Squeak Through Legislature

For weeks, the Senate and House have been in a schoolyard scrap over which body has the best approach to decriminalizing truancy, raising the prospect of yet another legislative session ending without reform. Though both the Senate and House have passed bills that would treat truancy as a civil matter, Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Rep. Harold Dutton (D-Houston)—the authors of the competing proposals—are bottling up each other’s bills in the committees they oversee. Still, a last-minute third-way compromise may save the prospects of truancy reform, which has gained broad bipartisan support.

Texas is one of only two states that treats missing school as a criminal matter. In 2013, Texas courts prosecuted more than 100,000 criminal truancy cases, twice as many as all other states combined. Truancy often leads to steep fines, arrest and criminal records that follow students into adulthood, and research indicates that the punitive approach has little effect on school attendance. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating Dallas’ truancy courts for possible civil rights violations and Fort Bend ISD has shut down its program over accusations that it disproportionately punishes poor and minority students.

The compromise, House Bill 1490 by Rep. Dan Huberty (R-Kingwood), takes a slightly different approach to ending criminal truancy than the Whitmire and Dutton bills.

HB 1490 would shift truancy enforcement’s focus from courts to schools, requiring school districts to adopt a three-tiered system of interventions for truant students with escalating consequences, including community service or restorative-justice programs within schools. Whitmire is sponsoring HB 1490 in the Senate, which has a hearing in Senate Criminal Justice Committee Thursday afternoon.

Dutton also supports the Huberty approach.

“His bill doesn’t do any harm to my bill. The only thing my bill did differently was eliminate mandatory referral based on 10 absences,” Dutton said.

(Current law mandates that schools refer students to justices of the peace or courts for prosecution after 10 unexcused absences.)

Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a social justice advocacy group at the forefront of efforts to decriminalize truancy, said Huberty’s bill is a smart approach.

“Rep. Huberty’s bill has both of the components we look for in truancy reform: decriminalization and intervention and prevention at the school level,” said Fowler. “We are delighted to see it move forward.”

Jody Baskins, director of legal services at the Texas Association of School Boards, said any change should ensure that students remain accountable.

“Whichever bill moves forward, when a judge issues an order, if the student disregards the order then the court needs to be able to enforce the order in some way. There need to be escalating consequences,” Baskins said.

After the session ends, Dutton said, his Juvenile Justice Committee plans to meet with the House Public Education Committee to discuss what schools can do to keep kids in the classroom.

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Published at 12:34 pm CST