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Truancy reform advocates worry Texas could backtrack following Uvalde shooting

Gabriel C. Pérez

During marathon legislative hearings following the mass shooting in Uvalde, lawmakers and leaders of the state’s education agency have been discussing plans of doing a reverse behavioral threat assessment of the shooter – meaning the Texas Education Agency would go through the shooter’s academic history and look for signs of trouble.

One such sign was a history of truancy, said Talia Richman, who has been reporting on this for the Dallas Morning News’ Education Lab.

“And so that made lawmakers think clearly that should have been a flag that something was wrong. Is there something we need to do to crack down on absenteeism?” Richman said. “And they think that that could be something that needs more teeth, which would be a reversal of the Legislature’s position in 2015, when they took those steps to decriminalize truancy and instead of focus on lower-stakes interventions for families.”

Before reforms in 2015, Texas had a policy in place that criminalized truancy. Groups that pushed for those reforms are concerned the state could backtrack on the decriminalization of truancy in the state following the Uvalde shooting.

“It was, you know, just kind of off the charts compared to other states with how many kids it was going after,” Richman said.

“The truancy system in Texas was really ensnaring huge numbers of families. There were more than 100,000 cases filed one year against children and their parents,” Richman said. “And these cases would end up in criminal courts with kids facing really steep fines, as well as, in some cases, jail time for the failure to attend school, which was considered a crime.

“And those cases would mostly impact Black, Hispanic and low-income families, according to advocates who studied the problem. And they said it was further strengthening the school-to-prison pipeline and, you know, really setting these families up for failure when, in a lot of cases, chronic absenteeism is a symptom of other issues going on.”

When Texas reformed its system, it put processes in place for schools to offer interventions and counseling and send letters home to families before taking other action – which could still include fines for parents, Richman said, but “what some lawmakers and what the Texas Education Agency said they’ve heard from superintendents is they do feel like they need more options, more teeth potentially, to the truancy system.”

The vast majority of students who miss school do not turn to violence or become mass shooters, Richman said.

“I think what we’re seeing a lot of in the Legislature is turning to these type of disciplinary and other methods as a way to take action, rather than looking at some of the other issues, including gun control and things like that,” Richman said.

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