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Two school districts accused of violating new truancy law

Students in Mesquite and El Paso schools were sent to truancy court despite a new state law stressing alternatives to criminal charges, several advocacy groups allege.

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Two Texas school districts are not following a new law designed to reduce the number of students who end up in truancy courts, an alliance of advocacy groups claimed on Monday.

In complaints filed with the Texas Education Agency, Disability Rights Texas, Texas Appleseed and the National Center for Youth Law accused the El Paso and Mesquite independent school districts of violating provisions of House Bill 2398, a measure designed to decriminalize multiple absences and encourage schools to intervene before court action is taken.   

Under the new law, school districts are no longer able to send students with three unexcused absences within a four-week period to truancy courts. School officials must instead notify parents of the absences and warn them of the penalties, which include a fine or loss of driving privileges if the student acquires more absences. A criminal complaint against the parents may eventually be filed as well.  

The bill also requires public schools to implement truancy prevention programs and develop new methods of punishing students are punished after multiple absences. It also mandates that parents and educators have face-to-face meetings, and that students be enrolled in a truancy prevention program.

In the Mesquite ISD case, the groups allege that a student — referred to as “B.H.” in the complaint — was referred to truancy court twice for multiple absences but that no treatment programs were documented or discussed. The complaint explains that B.H. qualifies as a student with disabilities because “his school health records document diagnoses of asthma, ADHD, anxiety, and sleep disturbance.”

The truancy court dismissed the petitions both times, but the complaint states the process didn’t need to extend that far — and might not have had HB 2398 been followed.

“The Truant Conduct Referral filed by Mesquite ISD Truancy Officer Pam Bell failed to specify any prevention measures that were utilized and failed,” it states. “In addition, the referral failed to identify B.H. as a student with mental health disabilities or who receives [special needs] accommodations.”

In an email, Mesquite schools spokeswoman Laura Jobe said she couldn’t comment on the student’s specific case due to privacy guidelines, but that the district is working to comply with the new law.

“Mesquite ISD has been diligent over the past year putting procedures in place to ensure our compliance with HB 2398,” she wrote. “Our staff members consistently work with our families to aid them in meeting the state’s school attendance requirements and assisting them with personal situations that may impact a child’s attendance.”

The El Paso complaint also revolves around a student with special needs whose mother was sent a “Loss of Credit” warning letter after several absences. The student, referred to as M.C., has several digestive problems that the complaint says the school documented.

“Yet they still proceeded to implement an “Anti-Truancy Contract” that failed to address the underlying causes of M.C.’s absences. This Anti-Truancy Contract places sole responsibility on M.C., a student with significant health issues,” the complaint alleges.

According to the complaint, the school’s assistant principal and Section 504 coordinator subsequently filed an allegation of “truant misconduct” for 11 alleged unexcused absences, even though M.C.’s mother had documentation refuting the claims or showing her son was at the doctor’s office on the dates mentioned and was excused. The administrators also accused the student of being on “illegal drugs” and fabricating his health issues, according to the complaint.

“El Paso ISD’s prevention and intervention efforts were perfunctory and superficial at best,” it says. “Despite HB 2398’s requirements, no serious effort was made to determine the underlying reason for M.C.’s absences or find ways to effectively support M.C.’s attendance.”

Gustavo Reveles, an EPISD spokesman, said he couldn’t discuss the specific case due to privacy policies. But he said that with respect to the students at the high school who have been through the intervention process, the district has ample documentation to show it is in compliance with the new law.

“We did look into it with our truancy prevention and student retention office. In all instances there is tons of documentation showing significant levels of intervention,” he said. “Right now we really do feel that in all four cases we did everything we could to provide intervention and support.”

The advocacy groups are asking that M.C.’s mother be reimbursed for court costs and fines and that the school convene a Section 504 committee to develop a plan for individualized accommodations to the school’s attendance policy.

“Specifically, M.C. should not receive any disciplinary actions, unexcused absences, truancy court referrals, or loss of credit based on attendance requirements for absences related to his medical conditions,” the groups urge.

In an email, a Texas Education Agency spokesperson said the unit received the complaints and will review them. 

According to a press release: “Disability Rights Texas, NCYL and Texas Appleseed have asked TEA to include in the minimum standards a requirement that before a referral to truancy court, any student who might have a disability be evaluated for special education services and accommodations and the convening of a committee to determine causes of nonattendance for any student with a disability already served in special education or under Section 504.”

Those comments will be reviewed along with all other comments received during this period before the final rules are posted, spokeswoman Lauren Callahan said.

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