Bud Kennedy

Texas districts should oppose truancy choices of ‘school or jail’

A Fort Worth police officer escorts a 14-year-old to an attendance hearing.
A Fort Worth police officer escorts a 14-year-old to an attendance hearing. Star-Telegram archives

Does your school district jail students for playing hooky?

If it does, find new leaders who don’t see three “skips” as a crime deserving fines, jail time and a criminal record.

Even a few trustees were surprised this week when Fort Worth and Hurst-Euless-Bedford officials defended the status quo in Texas, one of two states where truancy is punished as a Class C misdemeanor crime comparable to shoplifting, vandalism and recklessness.

The Texas Senate voted 26-5 this week to stop jailing truants or using them as money machines. Under Senate Bill 106, criminal charges would be removed from the range of options to help keep kids in school.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called for change after districts filed 115,000 criminal cases against students in 2013, usually generating $200-plus fines and court costs that turned into jail time if students couldn’t pay.

Senators talked about straight-A students and pregnant teens yanked out of class to county jails, sometimes for old unpaid fines.

“The criminal system is just not a place for kids,” Hecht told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

“Sometimes juveniles act like adults, and we have no choice. But for the most part, kids don’t belong there. They belong in class.”

Fort Worth files far fewer cases than Dallas — about 1,700 per year compared with Dallas’ 20,000, according to a report by Austin-based Texas Appleseed. (The U.S. Justice Department is investigating if Dallas is providing constitutional due process.)

But surprisingly, a Fort Worth school administrator said Wednesday that the district supports the law, and a Hurst-Euless-Bedford truancy officer testified for keeping it.

That was news to some trustees.

One Fort Worth trustee, Ann Sutherland, wrote on Twitter: “FWISD staff opposed this good bill? On whose authority?” Trustee Cinto Ramos also has written supporting the bill.

The Hurst-Euless-Bedford trustees haven’t discussed it, board President Ellen Jones said.

“This district’s position is to avoid that [jail] route and to intervene in kids’ lives and get them in school,” she said.

“I would rather help kids than put them in jail.”

That’s more like it.

Bud Kennedy’s column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 817-390-7538

Twitter: @BudKennedy