Texas truancy law is a big problem

Judge Sharon Newman-Stanfield, center, addresses a parent and child in truancy court on the Eastern Hills High School campus in 2010.
Judge Sharon Newman-Stanfield, center, addresses a parent and child in truancy court on the Eastern Hills High School campus in 2010. Star-Telegram

During a joint session of the Legislature last month, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht asked a profound question regarding the way school districts and the justice system deal with truancy.

“Playing hooky is bad, but is it criminal?” Hecht asked.

That question has even more relevance this month after the release of a report by an advocacy group that shows 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.

That’s more than twice as many cases as all the other states combined, according to the report by Texas Appleseed, whose mission is to promote social and economic justice.

Hecht, in his State of the Judiciary address, proved to be in sync with the recommendation of the advocacy group that it is time to decriminalize truancy.

“A better, more effective solution may be for schools and courts alike to provide prevention and intervention services for at-risk children to actually achieve the goal: getting them back in school,” the chief justice said.

That’s exactly the approach that is being taken by the Fort Worth school district, which appears to be bucking the trend described as bad practices in the Texas Appleseed report.

The study says there are far too many negatives in the state system.

In addition to levying fines and giving youngsters a criminal record that may help funnel them into the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the report says, the state’s truancy laws disproportionately affect certain groups, namely the economically disadvantaged, special education students, African-Americans and Hispanics.

Hispanics, who make up 52 percent of student enrollment in Texas, represent 64 percent of cases filed, while blacks represent 13 of enrollment but make up 20 percent of the truancy cases.

Texas’ compulsory school attendance laws, requiring youths to be enrolled in school from age 6 until their 18th birthday, says a child can be referred to court by schools or law enforcement after missing three or more days (or parts of days) within a four-week period, or 10 or more days in a six-month period.

In the case of 10 absences, the school district is compelled to refer the child or the parent (or both) to court.

That’s one of the laws that ought to be changed, Texas Appleseed says.

Of the counties with the most truancy prosecutions, Tarrant County ranks eighth with 1,882, compared with Harris with 13,636 and Dallas with 8,871.

Among the state’s 20 largest school districts, Dallas (158,932 students) had 23,100; Fort Worth (with 83,503 students) had 1,471; San Antonio (54,268 students) had 6,273; and Arlington (just over 65,000 students) had 817.

The Fort Worth district, in partnership with the city, has a Comprehensive Truancy Intervention Program and runs its own truancy court at Eastern Hills High School, said Michael Steinert, acting assistant superintendent for student support services.

“We have a full-time municipal judge who hears all student and family contributing truancy cases, so none of our referrals go to adult courts,” Steinert said.

At the first sign of truancy (three or more absences), he said, intervention begins at the campus level. It includes phone calls home, parent conferences and — in the case of more than three unexcused absences in four weeks — a letter of concern sent home.

The district has 13 stay-in-school coordinators, one at each traditional high school. When the number of absences gets close to the 10 threshold, parents are called to the campus for a Student Attendance Review Team meeting.

“We have had less than 2,000 [failure to attend school] cases the past few years and are hoping to get below 1,000 in the next year,” Steinert said. “Through the first semester this year, we sent over 12,000 early warning letters to parents, held 2,100 SART team meetings and have had over 1,000 truancy-related contacts between our [stay-in-school] coordinators and kids. We have had 404 students referred to Eastern Hills Truancy Court.”

With these extra efforts, Fort Worth appears to be on the right track, focusing on keeping kids in school rather than on punishing them.

The Legislature and the Texas Education Agency should help more districts get on board and should move truancy out of the criminal courts.