Law has little impact on Fort Worth students skipping school, but that's a good thing

Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Fort Worth school district, reads with students. The district has worked hard to keep truancy rates low.
Kent Scribner, superintendent of the Fort Worth school district, reads with students. The district has worked hard to keep truancy rates low. Star-Telegram archives

Three years after the Texas Legislature made truancy a civil, rather than a criminal offense, the student attendance rate in Fort Worth public schools has remained unchanged.

But that's OK with school district officials — they weren't expecting a big increase. They also didn't see a sharp drop.

Barry Smith, assistant director of student engagement and school completion with the Fort Worth school district, said when the law was implemented, Fort Worth was in the process of moving away from court referrals. As a result, more kids are in school.

Fort Worth ISD has raised local funding that allows it to provide full-day pre-k to all 4-year olds. Other districts, however, restrict enrollment leaving many children without the opportunity to enroll.

"Overall, we were doing intervention measures," Smith said. "It's been our goal the last seven to eight years to transition from the courts to intervention anyway. We were already there."

Five years ago, the school district was making about 2,500 referrals to the city's truancy court. Last year, the district only made about 170 referrals.

Fort Worth has more than 87,000 students.

Figures given to the Fort Worth City Council Tuesday show that the 2016-17 district-wide school year attendance rate was 94.6 percent, down only from 94.8 percent from the 2015-16 school year. And in the four years prior, the rate was either 94.7 percent or 94.8 percent.

Before the law changed Sept. 1 2015, truant students could be issued a Class C misdemeanor for failing to attend school. The law "decriminalized" truancy, and the Legislature told cities and school districts to find ways to keep students in school through intervention and retention. The thought was attendance rates would go up statewide.

Under the law, however, parents could still be held criminally liable for their truant children.

"We want kids to stay in school," said Theresa Ewing, Fort Worth's Municipal Court director. “Kids need to be in school, but it takes a parent sometimes to ensure they are going to be there."

In June 2016, Fort Worth closed its court dedicated to truancy and now a judge only handles cases administratively a half-day once a month. Ewing said the school district has a long check list before it can file a case with the City Attorney's Office.

Following new law, Fort Worth, Tarrant County, the Fort Worth School District and other social service agencies established the Comprehensive Truancy Intervention Program focused on preventing students from dropping out of school and to increase attendance.

The district now has 14 stay-in-school coordinators that track and monitor students.

Now, students can be fined $50 and ordered to school counseling, mediation or other services aimed at preventing truancy.

Sandra Baker: 817-390-7727, @SandraBakerFWST
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