Civil rights groups say federal intervention is needed in several Dallas-area school districts where droves of students are being funneled into the criminal court system through a truancy punishment program.
Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Disability Rights Texas have asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s civil rights division to look into a truancy court system used by at least four Texas districts. Together, the districts—Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson—serve about 300,000 students.
The complaint will be filed today on behalf of seven students, who the civil rights group say are representative of many students in the region. The document describes the students and their situations like this:
- A.B., who was suspended for being tardy to class, received a truancy case in part because her school erroneously counted those days of suspension as unexcused absences for suspensions given for being tardy to class;
- B.B., whose absences stemmed from the failure of the school to provide her necessary special education services;
- J.D., whose absences were due to a chronic respiratory disability;
- K.W., whose absences were caused by caring for her mother, who has congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease;
- S.M., whose absences were caused by medical complications after delivery of her child;
- I.J., who was referred to truancy court for being late to class because she was using the restroom; and
- L.P., whose truancy case was caused by absences due to illness, because her caregiver did not call the school on the day of her absence.
The groups say the truancy courts, created in 2003, can hand down steep fines, and students may have to pay court costs, perform community service, get tutoring, and may wind up with a criminal record if they fail to carry out their sentences. The groups say students aren’t provided with lawyers who can represent them and students aren’t adequately advised of their legal rights and the consequences of a guilty plea. During the 2012 fiscal year, the Dallas County truancy courts collected $2.9 million in fines from truant students and prosecuted more than 36,000 truancy cases. If students don’t show up for court, they can be arrested, handcuffed, transported in a police car to court, and charged additional fees—and face missing more school although the reason they are in the spotlight is for missing school in the first place.
Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas, and the National Center for Youth Law want the districts to rewrite their attendance policies so that punishment that involves missing school—out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and so on—aren’t consequences for being truant. And that if those forms of punishment are employed, that should only happen after schools have tried to intervene on chronically absent students’ behalfs by having parent conferences, involving social services agencies, or changing students’ class schedules and locker locations.
Indeed, de-emphasizing the use of the truancy court system is the ideal solution, said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national initiative promoting better policy and practice on school attendance, in an email.
“Court interventions tend to be more costly and often fail to address the root cause of the student’s absenteeism,” Chang said.
The civil rights groups also want districts to make sure attendance policies are consistent from school to school; policies in the districts allow individual schools and teachers to tack on provisions, too. From the complaint:
For example, on John D. Horn High School's website (in Mesquite), the parent information page indicates that any time a student is sick, a parent must "call in" to report the absence. It also notes that a parent may only excuse an absence by calling in three times—after the third call, "proper documentation" must be provided to excuse the absence. See John D. Horn High School. Similarly, in Garland, Garland High School's "policies and procedures" page notes that "an attendance form must be filled out and stapled to the absence note" that a student turns in after being out of school. Garland High School allows six notes for personal illness during the semester—after which, "an official doctor's note" is required. See Garland High School, Policies and Procedures. Some schools specify that a student needs a doctor's note if they miss as few as three consecutive days of school—or, alternatively, that only three handwritten excuses from a parent will be accepted per semester. ... Others allow five to 10 absences before a doctor's note is required.
In addition, the complaint alleges that some of the districts don’t provide adequate information about school truancy policies in languages other than English; African-American students are overrepresented in truancy referrals; and that students have been listed as having an unexcused absence for attending funerals, for being late to class, and while serving an out-of-school suspension. Even students with disabilities, the complaint says, weren’t provided with support from anyone during court proceedings, which were not modified to address students’ abilities.
One complaint targets the Dallas school district alone: Pregnant students, it says, were labeled truant even if they notified the district of their condition, and they were not provided with educational materials or services while they were out of school after giving birth.
A spokesman for the Dallas school district said his agency “takes issues related to student attendance very seriously as we believe student attendance is essential to academic success. Dallas [Independent School District] adheres to all attendance policies set by the state and cooperates closely with the Office of Civil Rights. We will continue to ensure that all students are treated equitably.”
The Richardson district directed those who question the district’s policies and practices to its code of conduct and said it works to provide all students “a variety of engaging school activities in order to prevent truancy and dropouts. ... When truancy situations do occur, RISD follows Texas law. RISD will evaluate the complaint and cooperate with the Office of Civil Rights.”
The Mesquite district also defended its truancy policies, although a district spokeswoman said the civil rights groups’ complaint is still being reviewed.
“I can tell you that we provide our attendance policies to students and parent at the beginning of each school year. They are included in our student handbook/student code of conduct, which is also available in Spanish,” Laura Jobe said in an email. “I will need more time to investigate your question about school policies that might differ from district policy. While campus procedures might vary, they should not conflict with district policy.”
She said the district’s policies and practices comply with Texas law.
“Of course our goal is to ensure that students are in attendance to ensure they receive the best educational opportunities,” she said.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.