AUSTIN — Texas’ truancy policies are a “flawed and inequitable patchwork” that led to the criminal prosecution of 115,000 children for not going to school in 2013, and the state prosecutes twice as many teens for truancy than all other states combined, according to a nonprofit advocacy group.
Texas Appleseed released a report Thursday recommending that the Texas Legislature lighten laws that address truancy, defined as an unexcused absence from school. The research and advocacy group also called for decriminalizing truancy, which is now a Class C misdemeanor.
Under state law, students as young as 12 can be ordered to appear in court with at least one parent for missing three days of school during a four-week period. Schools must file a charge against students who have more than 10 unexcused absences within six months.
The majority of cases are handled in an adult criminal court, though about 1,000 cases in 2013 were classified as complaints of “conduct in need of supervision” and handled in the juvenile system. Only in Texas and Wyoming are truancy cases handled in adult criminal courts.
“There is absolutely no research to support the way that we handle truancy in Texas,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. “We’ve met with parents who have actually lost jobs because they’ve had to show up to court.”
Fowler said recent numbers show a truancy decline in Texas, consistent with juvenile crime trends nationwide. But she said Texas prosecutes at least twice as many teens for truancy than all other states combined.
About 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy come from low-income families, the report states. While Latino students make up 52 percent of student enrollment in Texas, they represent 64 percent of truancy cases filed. African-American students represent 13 percent of enrollment, yet make up 20 percent of truancy cases. Students with special-education needs represent 8.5 percent of enrollment, but 13 percent of truancy cases, the report found.
“A flawed and inequitable patchwork of truancy policies and practices in Texas schools and courts disproportionately harm economically disadvantaged children, African-American and Hispanic students, and those with disabilities,” the group said in a statement accompanying the report.
The report also found that school districts have much discretion in how to handle students who don’t go to school. Judges can issue fines up to $500, and students who are unable to pay can be arrested once they turn 17, at which point they enter Texas’ adult criminal system.
According to Texas’ Legislative Budget Board, 160,000 criminal complaints were filed with justices of the peace and criminal misdemeanor courts in 2014.
Even before the report, Texas lawmakers filed more than a dozen bills to change how the state handles students who don’t go to school. Decriminalizing the act already has the support of Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and the Texas Judicial Council, the policy-making arm of the Texas judiciary, which recommended the change to lawmakers this year.
“The point of the truancy law is to get the kid back in school,” Hecht said in a recent interview following his State of the Judiciary speech to lawmakers.
He recommended programs that try to solve the problems causing children to miss school “instead of dragging them to court.”