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Texas Schools Still Waiting for State Guidelines Under New Truancy Law

Nathan Bernier

Public school districts in Texas are no longer supposed to file criminal charges against a student for missing too much school. They’re supposed to use the court system only as a last resort. It’s part of last year’s sweeping change to the state’s truancy law that put more emphasis on preventing dropouts and truancy rather than criminalizing that behavior. But school districts are still waiting for some state guidance on how to do that.

Before the changes last year, school districts could file criminal charges against students who missed more than 10 days of school in a six-month period.

It was a controversial law. Advocates argued it did not improve student attendance. Instead, they said, it made it harder for these students to go to college or get jobs after high school. Deb Fowler is the executive director for Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit that lobbied for the new truancy law.

“Cases would no longer be criminalized," Fowler said. "They would be handled much as they are in the juvenile justice system as a civil cases rather than criminal cases.”

The new law put the onus on school districts to provide truancy prevention and intervention programs for students. After it went into effect last September, courts statewide got training on how to implement the new law. But, Fowler says, school districts are still waiting for similar guidance from the Texas Education Agency, which was tasked with creating policies for best practices and creating " basic standards for what those prevention and intervention programs were supposed to look like," he says. 

“Schools have been somewhat left in the dark when it comes to having any good guidance around what good prevention and intervention programs look like. We know this is a critical piece to ensure students are succeeding.”

The TEA said it would not comment because it’s still developing the standards. But a TEA spokesperson did say that those standards should be sent to schools around the start of this coming school year.

Each school district handles students’ absences differently, and some already have truancy intervention programs. Fowler says state guidance would be helpful for those that don’t have those programs in place.

“For the school districts that were relying principally on the court system to address student absences," Fowler says. "We’re still seeing a need for some information and guidance around how to put some interventions in place that really address the attendance problems, so that the students are able to get back on track educationally.

Even though schools cannot file criminal charges against absent students, they can still file criminal charges against parents. There was concern among advocates that the new law would cause schools to file more charges against parent, but preliminary data from the Office of Court Administration shows a drop in cases against parents last school year, too.

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