Skipping school in Texas would no longer be a crime for students under a bill approved 26-5 by the Texas Senate on Wednesday after a long and sometimes heated debate.
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said his bill would still allow school officials and judges statewide to try to ensure that kids aren’t skipping school. The difference, he explained, is removing the prospect of criminal charges.
Opponents — including the Fort Worth school district — argue that current law gives them needed enforcement tools to crack down on truancy, a major problem in Texas schools for years.
The law now says that students with three unexcused absences in four weeks, or 10 unexcused absences in six months, can face fines up to $500. Over 115,000 Class C misdemeanor cases were filed against Texas students in adult criminal courts in 2013 — more than twice as many as any other state — according to a recent study by an advocacy group.
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Whitmire and others argued that the law is too harsh and can create problems that follow a child for life. He got emotional when some Republicans suggested that many law enforcement officials in their home counties support the current system. He further responded that too many officials are “getting enriched” by steep current fines.
“Don’t make a 14-year-old a criminal because he or she can’t get to school because of a hardship,” Whitmire told his colleagues. “This is tough, very serious. … But let’s just quit criminalizing young people.
“This is long overdue.”
His bill now goes to the House, where opponents will continue their efforts to stop it. It makes truancy a misdemeanor punishable by graduated fines for parents starting at $100.
The Legislature approved a similar bill in 2013, but it failed when Gov. Rick Perry refused to sign it.
The Fort Worth school district is already considered a leader in establishing early intervention and prevention programs to combat truancy. So Whitmire’s bill would likely affect the district less than some others in the state.
Nonetheless, spokesman Michael Steinert said in a statement that the district opposes the change.
“The bill would remove ‘the hammer’ approach/option for districts which, in some chronic cases, is a necessary and effective intervention. In that sense we don’t support it,” he said.
Other North Texas districts opposing the bill include Plano, McKinney and Denton. They said the threat of a criminal charge is the only way to get through to some students and families.
“They’re telling me our truancy system works,” said Sen. Van Taylor, R-Plano.
But Whitmire has a long list of powerful allies on the issue, including the Texas Association of Business and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht.
A common refrain from Texas Association of Business Chief Executive Bill Hammond and other supporters is “Texas needs kids in the classroom, not in the courtroom.”
Hecht has touted the need for Whitmire’s bill for months and made it a highlight in his biennial State of the Judiciary address to the Legislature in February. “Playing hooky is bad, but is it criminal?” Hecht asked lawmakers.
Last month, the Justice Department launched an investigation into Dallas County’s truancy system amid allegations that students were denied attorneys, treated unfairly and forced to pay exorbitant fines.
Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, wrote a letter to outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month urging him to launch a federal investigation into truancy prosecutions statewide. “I believe the systemic approach to criminalize students for truancy deprives Texas students of their right to an education,” Ellis wrote.
A report released this year by the Texas Appleseed advocacy group found that more than 115,000 cases of “failure to attend school,” a Class C misdemeanor, were filed against students in adult criminal courts in Texas in 2013. The group’s mission is to promote social and economic justice.
Staff writers John Gravois and Yamil Berard contributed to this report, which includes material from The Associated Press, The Dallas Morning News and the Star-Telegram archives.