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Amid Truancy Debate, Whitmire Questions Program's Referrals

State Sen. John Whitmire is asking questions about a program for at-risk youths run by the Texas Military Department where more than half of the applicants are truant students referred by justice of the peace courts or from the schools themselves.

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As a state senator looks to pass legislation that would decriminalize truancy, he is also asking questions about a program for at-risk youths run by the Texas Military Department where more than half of the applicants are truant students referred by justice of the peace courts or from the schools themselves. 

The Texas ChalleNGe Academy, a West Texas-based program that helps students get either a GED or a high school diploma, is funded by the federal government and the state and gets administrative support by the Texas Military Department.

Students there are known as cadets. "The TCA is not like a high school," the application to the program states. "The program is more a military academy or more closely a residential ROTC program."

But state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, has raised questions about how students are getting referred to the program. Those concerns were heightened Wednesday when his office received an email from Texas Military Department Chief Financial Officer Pam Darden that said 60 percent of the academy’s applicants come from "high school counselors/administrators that are working with truant students or from truancy courts."

In 2014, there were at least 221 students who attended the 22-week academy from around the state. 

Whitmire wants to know if judges are offering enrollment in the program to truant students as an alternative to fines and jail sentences for skipping school so often that their cases have been referred to the adult court system.  

"I've been familiar with the ChalleNGe program for a couple of years," he said. "You always ask them how they find them, the at-risk kids." Over the years, he said, he has been told that the referrals were from school counselors. But this year the Texas Military Department has put in a budget request to expand a second facility at Eagle Lake. Whitmire said that prompted him to ask the department for specifically where the referrals were coming from to place kids at their existing program in Sheffield. That's when he got Darden's email about the truancy court referrals.

The fines and the sentencing of some juveniles to adult jails, along with the fact that truant youths do not have automatic access to legal counsel, have prompted the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the truancy program operated in Dallas County — one of two counties in the state that operate separate truancy courts. The other, Fort Bend Independent School District, notified parents Monday that it is suspending and re-examining its truancy process. Other counties leave truancy to municipal courts or justices of the peace. 

Truant students aren’t going to the academy “on their free will if a [justice of the peace] is telling them it's a condition of their truancy consideration," Whitmire told The Texas Tribune this week. 

Whitmire has a measure, Senate Bill 106, that would radically change the way the state deals with school truants.

The bill would make schools more responsible for improving student attendance and use the court system as a last option. SB 106 is the leading measure among dozens filed this session to reform the truancy system in Texas, having already passed the Senate and now before the House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee. 

Mike Weir, the ChalleNGe Academy's director, said he has no idea how the judges present the program to the truants. 

"I have no idea," he said. "That's between the kid and the judge."

In an emailed response to the Tribune, the state’s military department rejected the notion that the academy is a sentencing option for truant children. 

"Applicants cannot be court ordered to this program; they come because they chose a second chance for success," the agency statement reads. "More specifically, courts cannot use the Youth ChalleNGe Program as an alternative to sentencing."

The program is 75 percent federally funded, with a 25 percent state match, according to the agency. It began as an AmeriCorps program under President Bill Clinton. It transitioned over the years to become a National Guard program in the mid-1990s. 

"As you can see the Youth ChalleNGe Program is not a child care business nor a boot camp," the Texas Military Department said in its emailed response. "The Texas ChalleNGe Academy is a youth education program of the Texas Military Department."

The academy's latest rosters, provided to the Tribune by Whitmire's office, shows Houston sends the most cadets to the program. Because it gets federal funding, it is exempted from oversight by the Department of Family and Protective Services, according to DFPS. 

The revelation that truants are being sent miles from home is the latest curious detail in how Texas goes to such great lengths to keep teens in school until they’re 18.

Failure to attend school is a Class C misdemeanor that carries a possible fine of up to $500. While most courts of law recognize that children are indigent, others say they have no choice with chronic offenders. And as noted by several news outlets, including The Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle and BuzzFeed, those most habitual offenders can wind up with thousands of dollars in fines or spending time in adult jails for contempt. 

In Texas, schools have the option of referring the cases of truant students, those who miss at least 10 days during a six-month period, to adult court. Municipal judges or justices of the peace can sentence truant students to community service. Harsher penalties like wearing a GPS-tracking ankle bracelet and jail time can be handed out if students don't follow the court's orders and return to school. Those 17 and older who fail to follow the court's orders have been sent to jail. 

The state does not count how many youths wind up in jail or are fined. 

Only Texas and Wyoming allow schools to refer chronic school-skippers to the adult court system, and Texas leads the nation in how many children wind up there. According to the advocacy group Texas Appleseed and the Office of Court Administration, 100,000 Texas students in 2014 faced municipal judges or justices of the peace in truancy cases.

"What needs to happen is court needs to be a last resort,” said Mary Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, which works to keep children out of the court system. 

The Senate's proposed budget directs the Texas Military Department to strive to have 200 students complete the ChalleNGe Academy program each year at a cost of $21,491 per student.

Nearly $6.9 million in youth education programs run by the Texas Military Department has been proposed in that Senate version. It is not known how much of that would go to the ChalleNGe Academy. 

The House's proposed budget expects the Texas Military Department to have 400 students complete the ChalleNGe Academy at the same average cost of $21,491 per student. They House is asking for $12.9 million for youth education programs run by the state military department.

In the email sent to Whitmire's office, the Texas Military Department named three justices of the peace who referred the most students to the academy: Justices of the Peace Matt Hayes of Mansfield, Joe Benavides of Corpus Christi and John Payton of Plano. None of the three returned calls for comment to the Tribune. 

Hayes endorsed the program on the academy's website, calling it "nothing short of phenomenal." Benavides of Corpus Christi made a 2013 video of himself making the 395-mile drive to Sheffield to visit with some of the students he sent there. In that video, he tells them that if they complete the program they will receive a two-year scholarship to Del Mar College in Corpus Christi. Most of the video features the judge praising the program. 

According to an April 22 BuzzFeed story, Payton said he sent 45 to 50 students to jail each year, most for a three-day stay for truancy-related charges. But the news outlet, relying on Collin County jail records, reported Payton sent 66 teenagers to jail in 2014.

"Judge Payton is not doing interviews at this time," Brenda Terrell, Payton's court administrator, in an email received on Thursday. 

Aman Batheja, Ryan McCrimmon and Bobby Blanchard contributed to this report. 

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