Texas Students Thrown in Jail for Days ... as Punishment for Missing School?
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School tardiness and absences come at a high cost in Dallas, Texas. Gone are the days of detention and writing lines on the chalkboard; now students are fined, even jailed.
The enforcement of the state’s truancy laws, which were strengthened substantially in 2003, have led to a range of abuses, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice:
- Students have been taken out of school in handcuffs, held in jail for days at a time, and fines have totaled more than $1,000 for students who miss more than 10 days of school.
- The students who are hauled into court to face truancy or lateness charges are not provided with legal counsel. The only lawyers in the courtroom are the judge and a member of the district attorney’s office, unless the student’s family can afford their own representation.
- Defendants are charged court fees even if they prevail in fighting the accusations, discouraging people from exercising their right to a full hearing.
The complaint, filed by a coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled, targets the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson school districts in Texas and urges the Justice Department to force reforms and “declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy” a violation of their constitutional rights.
For their part, some school officials, lawmakers, and judges say that the rigid enforcement system has led to improved attendance.
In a statement, Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins defended the program.
“The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, adding that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues, and make use of agencies who work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.
Certainly, the volume of cases has been striking. Texas adult courts in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases. Dallas County truancy court alone collected nearly $3 million in fines. It sent 67 students age 17 and older to jail because of truancy violations, and 53 students younger than 17 to juvenile detention centers. (Statewide records were not available.)
The complaint asserts that the program unfairly targets minorities and underprivileged students, and routinely puts youngsters in jail rather than keeping them in school.
Texas, like many other states, has been struggling with truancy issues for years. To combat the problem, the state legislature has passed a series of laws to stiffen penalties for absent and tardy students. In the 1990s, the legislature designated “failure to attend school” as a Class C misdemeanor, which meant that children could be tried as adults for missing school.
Texas state law now requires schools to report students to truancy court when a student has 10 or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. The complaint says that when students appear in court, they are often pressured to plead guilty and accept fines of anywhere from $80 to $500 rather than go to trial, pay additional court fees, and risk jail time. If students fail to appear in court or pay their fines on time, they can be arrested and jailed. Wyoming is the only other state in the country with a similar law, the complaint says.
In 2003, Dallas County got even more aggressive. According to the complaint, county officials lobbied the legislature to allow it to create its own specialized court system that would handle only truancy cases. The request was granted and since then four public school districts in the county have agreed to send their truant cases to the specialized courts.