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Some Texas Lawmakers Want to Decriminalize Truancy, But Those on the Frontlines Aren’t So Sure

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT News
Judge Yvonne Williams presides over truancy court cases in Travis County. She says some schools think she’s soft on students. ";

Fourteen-year-old Karyme* has missed 14 days of eighth grade this school year. Her school, part of the Manor Independent School District, has taken her and her mother to court.

Now she and her mother stand in an Austin courtroom facing the presiding judge, Hon. Yvonne Williams.

“Would you please tell me why you missed those days? Are you agreeing you missed those days?” Williams asks. “I was skipping,” Karyme says. “Right — you were skipping, but why were you skipping?” Williams presses.

Karyme’s mother doesn’t speak English, so a translator is provided.

“Are there any other children at home? Older or younger?” Williams asks. “Younger,” responds the translator. “You’re the oldest, and you’re setting this kind of example? Really, you need to get with it,” Williams tells Karyme, who stares at her shoes.

Instead of requiring Karyme and her mother to pay the tickets, which are nearly $600 each, Williams says she tries to figure out what the students need. In this case, Williams assigns the student to a juvenile case manager. She also requires the mother and daughter to attend a Parent Engagement Workshop that her court organizes. In some cases, she'll require tutoring. If they attend the classes and Karyme stays in school, Williams says she'll dismiss the ticket. Nearly $1,200 in fines is reduced to $89.

Texas law allows school districts to file truancy charges against students, and their parents, if the student misses three classes in ten days, or ten classes in six months, or if they don't enroll in school. In 2013, 115,000 truancy cases were filed in Texas courts.

Williams says being in school is vital to a student’s success, but she doesn’t think missing school should be criminalized, and she refuses to treat students like they are criminals.

“Am I soft? I guess in that sense I am, and I’m proud of it. But I care, and I’m empathetic because I realize there’s reasons behind this, even the defiant ones.”

'As adversarial a setting as I can possibly imagine'

Texas and Wyoming are the only two states in the country where students who miss school could end up in front of a judge. Texas has handled truancy cases in adult court since 2001, when the state legislature transferred the cases there.

School districts can file truancy charges against students and parents if a student misses three classes in ten days or ten classes in six months. Campuses can also file charges against students who don’t enroll in school.  In 2013, 115,000 truancy cases were filed in Texas courts.

“Labeling them as criminals and sending them to adult criminal court is exactly the opposite way to make them want to be in school,” says Meg Clifford, an attorney and the Educational Equity fellow at the University of Texas School of Law's Mithoff Pro Bono Program.

Clifford started attending truancy court a few years ago to provide guidance to parents and students. Since truancy court isn’t supposed to result in incarceration, students aren’t offered legal representation.

She says sending kids to truancy court pits students against their schools. 

“The child then feels like, ‘Well, you filed on me in truancy court so you must not care, you must not be interested in what I’m going through,’” Clifford says.

When students return to school after a court appearance, Clifford says that relationship is strained, if not ruined. “Not only do they have a kid that’s chronically absent, but now they have a kid who is chronically absent and distrusts them and maybe dislikes them.”

Clifford says the courtroom is often the first place where students and parents come face-to-face with the person who filed charges against them, "which is about as adversarial a setting as I can possibly imagine".

This legislative session, lawmakers are once again weighing whether the state should continue to charge students with class C misdemeanors for truancy. Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) has filed a bill that would decriminalize truancy for students, but would still allow school districts to file charges against parents. The Senate approved the bill last month, and the House Committee on Juvenile Justice & Family Issues will consider it today. The bill passed the House and the Senate last session, but former Governor Rick Perry refused to sign it into law.

Putting 'a little elastic' in the law

Credit Blair Waltman-Alexin/KLRU-TV Austin
Harry Brooks helps students out as a graduation coach. His former job title, he says, was 'dropout prevention specialist.'

Not all schools immediately file charges against students who miss too many school days. Harry Brooks, the graduation coach at Austin’s Eastside Memorial High School, says he tries to work with students as much as possible before filing charges against a student.

“We take it upon ourselves to put a little elastic in that law, if I can say that, to work with the kid," Brooks says. "We have to give the kid and family some understanding.”

Brooks’ former title was “dropout prevention specialist.” His job was to track down kids who are missing a lot of school, get them to come back or enroll in an alternative school that meets their needs.

Brooks says he starts out sending letters home and calling parents. Austin ISD automatically calls home every time a student is marked absent. Brooks also brings students and parents in for meetings. He has students sign attendance contracts saying that they’ll come to school. And, when necessary, he visits students at home.

“We don’t have to come knock on your door. We could just [say], 'Hey you violated the law, we push it through the courts,'” he says. Brooks says he’s filed truancy charges against 30 students this year. As of February, that’s about five percent of the student body.

Still, Brooks remains hesitant about decriminalizing truancy.

“Less than a misdemeanor is nothing! Less than a misdemeanor is absolutely nothing! Guess what? All I have to do is pick up an extra shift, and I can pay that $20 ticket. They’re still not going to come to school.”

With some families, Brooks says taking them to court is the only way to get them to take their child’s education seriously.

Plus, in Texas, schools receive funding based on student attendance.

“If a kid doesn’t come to school, and we don’t have the law to support us on that, what do we do? We can’t physically go in and grab that kid and say ‘I don’t care, get yourself to school, because I’m going to get in trouble.' Because that’s assault! So having that support from the state, I think, and my colleagues would say, it’s needed,” Brooks says.

But he admits charging a student with truancy won’t always work. During one home visit a mother told him she recently discovered she had HIV and her daughter was missing school to spend time with her. But the child wasn't home that day, and the mother said she wouldn't return for a few days.

These kind of situations put Brooks in a tough place. 

“This is kinda the double standard," Brooks says, pulling away from the curb. "You’re sick, she wants to stay home with you, but she’s gone wherever until Wednesday?”

Brooks says he's sympathetic to the situation "Hey, HIV is something. But at the same time you’re saying she doesn’t want to go to school 'cause she wants to be home with you, then where is she? When did she actually leave?”

"Is filing a truancy charge going to change anything? No. Is it going to make her come to school? No. This is one of those ones we’re have to take on the chin. She’s going to be a dropout.”

Brooks heads back to school, where he says he’ll try to reach out to the family again and see if the student is interested in taking classes online.

*Because Karyme is a minor, KUT has chosen not to use her full name.