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Justice Department Will Investigate Dallas-Area Truancy Courts

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The U.S. Department of Justice will investigate whether courts in Dallas County, Texas violate the rights of students who are referred for criminal penalties after periods of truancy, the agency announced this week.

The investigation, praised by social justice organizations in the state, will specifically explore whether the juvenile and special truancy courts violate the due process rights of students and whether they "provide meaningful access to the judicial process for children with disabilities," the Justice Department said in a news release.

Texas schools are allowed to refer students to courts after they accumulate three unexcused absences within a four-week period. They are required to file a court complaint if a student accumulates 10 unexcused absences within a six-month period.

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 in March by the Texas Appleseed Project, an advocacy organization that deals with a range of issues, including juvenile justice and school discipline. That report also found truancy penalties were issued disproportionately to African-American, Hispanic, and special education students and that those students often paid steep fines as a result.

A preliminary review by the Justice Department revealed that the county prosecuted approximately 20,000 failure to attend school cases in 2014.

"The Constitution's guarantee of due process applies to every individual, regardless of age or disability," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement. "This investigation continues the Justice Department's focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances. As the investigation moves forward, the Department of Justice will work to ensure that actions of Dallas County's courts are appropriate; that our constitutional protections are respected; and that the children of Dallas County can receive the meaningful access to justice that all Americans deserve."

The agency's news release said it "has conducted similar investigations in other jurisdictions, and in 2012 obtained important reforms following its investigation of the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee."

Concerns Not New

This is not the first time Dallas truancy courts have been scrutinized. From the Dallas Morning News:

Three advocacy groups in 2013 filed a federal complaint about the county's truancy courts, which at the time sent law officers to school campuses to arrest and detain students who missed truancy court dates. Officials stopped using that practice after The Dallas Morning News reported about the arrests. Critics said the courts in part relied on attendance records from error-prone school employees for use against students accused of truancy, and that the students often didn't understand their legal rights. Among other shortcomings: schools tallying absences or judges overseeing truancy cases that didn't consider students' disabilities.

In many cases, kids have very complicated and sympathetic reasons for having problems with school attendance,' said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, one of the organizations that asked federal officials to step in.

The Cedar Hill, Dallas, Garland, Richardson and Mesquite school districts and Texas Can Academies use the specialty truancy courts, which have processed tens of thousands of cases and collected millions in fines in recent years.

Around the country, criminal penalties for truancy have been criticized by those who say the punishment is overly harsh and counterproductive. They advocate for early intervention to boost attendance. Proponents of criminal penalties, including some Texas school districts, say sometimes more dramatic measures are necessary to intervene in the lives of students with poor attendance records.

The Justice Department's investigation comes as Texas lawmakers consider a bill that would scale back penalties and fines for truancy and implement new procedures for school-based interventions.

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