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Too Many Texas Students Face Fines, Criminal Records for Truancy, Group Says

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An overreliance on the courts to address poor attendance in Texas schools has led the state to prosecute twice as many truancy cases as all other states combined, often in adult courts, according to a report released today.

Those cases result in a criminal record for students, often after schools did little to intervene in their absenteeism before referring them to the courts, says the report by the Texas Appleseed Project, an advocacy organization that deals with range of issues, including juvenile justice and school discipline. And students prosecuted for truancy—who are disproporionately African American, Hispanic, and special education students—often pay steep fines as a result, says the report, called "Class, Not Court."

Sometimes, judges require students charged with truancy-related offenses to withdraw school and complete GED programs instead, says the report, which tallied 6,423 such "court-ordered drop outs" over a three-year period who subsequently failed the GED test. 

Here's how the report describes the state's truancy laws:

"When a child accumulates unexcused absences for three days or parts of days within a four-week period, the school may refer the child to court for truancy. When a child accumulates unexcused absences for 10 days or parts of days within a six-month period, the school must file a complaint in juvenile or adult criminal court regardless of any ongoing intervention. 

Though truancy charges may be filed in juvenile court as a 'Conduct in Need of Supervision' (CINS) offense, they are more often filed in justice (JP) or municipal courts, which are adult criminal courts, as 'Failure to Attend School' (FTAS), the Class C misdemeanor offense named in the Education Code. While approximately 1,000 cases were filed in juvenile courts for the CINS offense of truancy in 2013, more than 115,000 FTAS cases were filed in adult criminal court forums in the same year. This high number of filings makes Texas an outlier—fewer than 50,000 truancy cases were filed in the juvenile courts of all other states combined."

Because of heavy reliance on the courts for attendance issues, "failure to attend school" makes up the largest non-traffic Class C misdemeanor issued in the state's courts against juvenile defendants. This graph, included in the report, shows the breakdown.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 8.48.48 PM.pngOther concerns detailed in the report:

  • Charges can also be filed against parents, oftentimes in addition to those already brought against their children.
  • Schools are legally required to provide truancy-prevention measures before referring students to the courts. But, with no legal outline of what those efforts must include, "they are often meaningless" efforts, like a letter to the child's parents without inquiring about personal factors that may contribute to missed school days.
  • Four out of five children sent to court for truancy are considered "economically disadvantaged," but fines are the most common sanction defendents face in court.

The report comes as schools around the country renew efforts to tackle poor attendance. 

And with good reason. Research shows that poor attendance correlates with low levels of academic achievement.

A September analysis by Attendance Works, for example, found that students with poor attendance in the month before taking the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress scored significantly lower on the test than their peers who had no absences in that time frame.

As a result of such findings, many states and districts have begun tracking missed school days on a more detailed level, intervening early with student supports and family programs. 

When New York city launched interagency efforts to address absenteeism through projects like celebrity wakeup calls for students, mentoring programs, and providing incentives for improved attendance, it saw a boost in academic performance as well as attendance rates, a study found.

Such supportive efforts to address truancy are more appropriate than an overly punitive approach, which hasn't proved successful in reversing absenteeism, Texas Appleseed says.

The organization recommends eliminating the "failure to attend school" offense from the state's laws, making court referrals discretionary instead of mandatory, the development of statewide standards for truancy intervention plans, and the legal prohibition of suspension or "court-ordered dropout" as a consequence for truancy.

"While some Texas school districts have implemented effective school- and community-based programs to address truancy, these approaches are not the norm," the report says. "Children rarely get the individualized attention that research suggests is most effective in intervening with truant youth."

Truancy is what's known as a status offense, an action that is only criminal because of the age of the offender. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity took a close look at how status offenses, specifically truancy, are handled in Tennessee. That report is well worth reading.

(Funding for the Texas Appleseed report was provided by the Atlantic Philanthropies, which helps support coverage of school climate issues in Education Week.)

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