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Lawmakers Attempt to Change Truancy Laws

Some parents and advocacy organizations say the state’s truancy laws are too harsh. The Senate passed a bill last week to change these laws, compromising with judges and district officials who said the reforms were too broad.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Rachel Hebert, 17, and her mother, Elizabeth, were issued court summons after Rachel missed numerous days of school because of medical problems relating to her cerebral palsy.

SAN ANTONIO — When she can focus on class, Rachel Hebert thrives as a student in the Northside Independent School District here. But Rachel, 17, who has cerebral palsy, often has medical complications that sometimes keep her from getting to school.

When she was summoned to a municipal court in October over truancy accusations, her family was shocked. Elizabeth Hebert, her mother, was charged as a “parent contributing to nonattendance.” If they had failed to show up for court, both could have been arrested. The case was dropped only after their attorney sought the release of Rachel’s attendance records.

“She’s not truant. She’s not shopping and running around in the streets,” Hebert said of her daughter. “I don’t feel like it’s the school’s fault. The regulations need to change.”

Several parents and advocacy organizations say that the state’s truancy laws are redundant and overly punitive and that they unfairly target students like Rachel. The criticism is being heard in the Legislature, where state senators on Thursday passed a bill to change how school districts and courts handle truancy. But some judges and school districts say the proposed changes are too broad.

In Texas, a student who misses 10 days of school within six months, or three days within four weeks, can be charged with "failure to attend school,” a Class C misdemeanor in the state's Education Code, or with a juvenile offense in the Family Code. Parents can also be charged with “contributing to nonattendance.” If reported by the school district to a municipal court, they can face fines of up to $500 and be arrested if they fail to appear before a judge.

Vicky Sullivan, director of pupil personnel at Northside Independent School District, where Rachel goes to school, said that she could not comment on individual students, but explained that they “always have an opportunity to resolve the matter before it goes to court” with medical documentation. “There are a number of steps of prevention and intervention, and the hope is it doesn’t result in a court referral,” Sullivan said.

But a report by the advocacy group Texas Appleseed found that in 2012, at least 112,000 truancy cases were processed in Texas by nonjuvenile courts. Some school officials say the threats of fines and arrests are necessary in numerous cases where students would otherwise skip class and their parents would not stop them.  

These students “may be left with a criminal conviction that can have lasting consequences or pose barriers to future educational opportunities, military service or job prospects," Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed’s deputy director, wrote in the report. She argues that incremental sanctions — which try to keep kids in school before punishing them — are more effective.

Eliminating the crime of truancy as a Class C misdemeanor was the original focus of Senate Bill 1234, which would have required that cases be handled only by school districts and juvenile courts. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, the bill’s author, said this month at a committee meeting that he had heard of students who want to go to school but cannot due to medical or other reasons. Poor families cannot afford the $80 court costs that come with being charged, he said, and criminalizing truancy “desensitizes” students “to the seriousness of going to court.”

But the bill has faced opposition from some school district administrators, who say the threat of fines is necessary to keep students from skipping school.   

“I don't like this move in society to move the responsibility to the schools, to the courts,” said John Kelly, superintendent of Pearland Independent School District, near Houston. “Don’t close the window on these other courts that can help us.”

Responding to the criticism, Whitmire changed the bill to preserve the misdemeanor crime, requiring school districts and courts to employ case managers or attendance officers to provide services to students who miss school before they are referred to a court. It would also decrease the maximum fine to $100 from $500 and require districts to choose whether to prosecute the parent or the student.  

Advocates like Fowler say the new version, which now heads to the House, is insufficient but preferable to the current situation.

Whitmire said he would continue to reform state laws on school attendance in future legislative sessions. “If I'm here another two months or another 20 years, I'm going to work on truancy,” he said.

Fowler, who advocated for the old bill, said Rachel Hebert's case is “a great example of how broadly we cast the net in Texas."

“It makes me angry she can’t just try to be normal student,” said her mother, Elizabeth Hebert. “This is a child who loves school, but just can’t go sometimes.”

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Courts Criminal justice Public education John Whitmire Judiciary of Texas