A Dallas County court is charging truant students and their parents millions in fines, handcuffing students in their classrooms and infringing on youths’ constitutional rights, according to a complaint that advocates are filing Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice.
“It’s a very punitive process,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is among those filing the complaint. “We’ve been to the court, too, and heard kids threatened with arrest and jail.”
On behalf of seven Dallas-area students, Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law will ask the Justice Department to declare that the court’s process of prosecuting truancy as a crime is unconstitutional. In the complaint, the groups argue that prosecuting the youths in adult court where they don't have lawyers is “cruel and unusual punishment.” They also allege that the four school districts — Dallas, Mesquite, Garland and Richardson — that use the specialty court have “inconsistent and inflexible” attendance policies that violate the civil rights of students with disabilities, those who are pregnant and those whose first language is not English.
Dallas County and school officials argue that the truancy program has been successful at reducing dropouts and that school administrators work hard to accommodate students with special needs. They say the program has worked so well that lawmakers have approved legislation that would make the Dallas program a model for truancy courts statewide.
Texas is one of only two states that prosecute truancy as a crime in adult courts — Wyoming is the other. Dallas County has prosecuted more truancy cases than any other county and three times as many cases as Harris County, which is home to the state’s largest school district.
“In many respects what we’re seeing in Dallas County you probably see in other places,” Fowler said. “What is unique about Dallas County is just the sheer number.”
Last year, Dallas County prosecuted more than 36,000 truancy cases, and in fiscal year 2012, it collected $2.9 million in fines. That money paid about three-quarters of the cost to run the truancy specialty court, one of only two such court systems in the state. The other is in Fort Bend County.
Two of Nicole Pryor’s four children are among the seven in the complaint against Dallas County. The single mother said the truancy court process has been expensive and stressful for her family.
Pryor said her older daughter, who has attention deficit disorder, became depressed and frustrated and began missing classes when the school stopped providing support services that had helped her to learn. Three truancy cases were filed against her, and she was ordered to appear in court.
“She was terrified. She’s asthmatic, and she went to court not knowing whether they were going to lock her up and put her in jail,” Pryor said.
The girl was convicted of “failure to attend” in all three cases and ordered to pay fines of more than $1,300. She has since enrolled in another school, from which she is preparing to graduate this month, but still must attend monthly review hearings until her fines are paid or face being jailed.
Pryor’s younger daughter, who has excelled academically, landed in the truancy court after the school inaccurately reported unexcused absences, Pryor said. Once, the girl was suspended for three days for being tardy after she arrived late to class because she was using the bathroom. Then, the school tallied her suspension days as unexcused absences. Pryor said her daughter had to miss school to spend hours in the courtroom pleading with the judge to dismiss the case.
“You don’t want them to grow up with a criminal background before they even get a chance to get a real job,” Pryor said. “It’s making the children not have any hope anymore.”
One student cited in the complaint faced truancy charges when doctors ordered her to stay out of school for a month following complications from childbirth. The school allegedly rejected a note she provided from the doctor because she did not submit it immediately after leaving the hospital. Another student cited in the complaint was prosecuted for truancy despite having explained to school officials that she was her ill mother’s primary caretaker and would need to miss classes when the condition worsened.
Many children arrive at the court in handcuffs, according to the complaint, after being arrested at school with a warrant. In the 2012 fiscal year, the truancy courts issued more than 4,800 warrants and served 1,737. Only students between the ages of 12 and 17 are charged. For students younger than 12, their parents are responsible for the truancy charges.
What’s more, the complaint alleges, attendance policies differ widely among school districts and schools, are often unavailable in languages other than English, and often leave parents unaware of problems until their child is already due in court.
“What results is a complex and confusing maze of policies that parents complain are unclear and divergent,” the complaint states.
The complaint asks the DOJ to not only declare the criminalization of truancy unconstitutional, but to order the schools to implement policies that are more flexible and more transparent, that take into consideration disabilities that might affect attendance and that use the court as a last resort.
“Removing students from class, handcuffing them and taking them to adult court does not make children more likely to attend school, fails to address the root causes of truancy, and makes it more likely that students will drop out,” Fowler said.
But Dallas County officials argue the special truancy court has had the opposite effect. Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Dallas ISD numbers indicate that 93.6 percent of all students who appear in truancy courts either graduate or stay enrolled in school. The district's dropout rate, he said, has fallen from almost 26 percent in 2007 to 12 percent in 2011.
Dallas County created the specialized court about a decade ago. Before that, justices of the peace, who often lacked juvenile justice experience, handled truancy cases. Students "stood in line along with everyone else waiting for speeding tickets," Jenkins said, adding that he could not comment on the specific complaint being filed.
The truancy court was intended to "get at the core problem of why the young people were truant," he said, a partnering of the criminal justice system with educators and nonprofits to help tackle the problem.
After he was elected in 2010, Jenkins said he reworked the truancy court's rules to reduce fines. Now, instead of a potential penalty of $500 each for both parents and students, there is a maximum fine of $100 for a first offense that increases to $500 only after a fifth offense. In many situations, he said, the fines are reduced when the student completes the court's order. Through a system of case managers — made up of lawyers and former educators — Jenkins said the court worked to identify the best interventions for troubled students. That could mean, for instance, helping a teenage mother find a parenting class or children with anger management issues find counseling.
Now, Jenkins said the court operates a "phenomenally successful program" — one that could soon be replicated in truancy courts statewide through Senate Bill 1234, which has passed through both chambers of the Legislature.
"It's not necessarily magic, but when you have people that do nothing but truancy and they are able to get these kids in front of them within a few days," he said, "you are going to have better outcomes."
Jenkins said that after "hours and hours of meetings" with Texas Appleseed, he had concluded that while "well meaning," the group had "some misperceptions" about how the Dallas County truancy court system operated.
"The reality is we have cut the budget for school districts to deal with these sorts of problems," he said. "If we are going to wait around on the Legislature to fix the problems with dropouts and truancy, then the effect is going to be that we are going to lose generations of students."
Administrators at Garland ISD said they work hard to stop truancy through phone calls to parents and home visits well before turning to the court as a last resort, which they said they must do under state law when a student has 10 or more unexcused absences. According to data cited by the district, Garland has made court filings against fewer than 2 percent of eligible students. Officials at the other three school districts named in the complaint did not respond to requests for comment.
"That never happens here," Hugo Martinez, an attendance administrator at Garland, said of the situations described in the advocates' complaint, which he said "paints a very negative picture" of how schools handle truancy issues.
"Our campuses, our administrators, our principals, our assistant principals, our counselors, they all bend over backwards to help parents and students out whenever there are pregnancies, whenever a student has to be a caregiver to an ill parent," Martinez said. "Whenever there are extenuating circumstances, they all bend over backwards to help students."
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