By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
He practically raised himself, anyway. His father left when he was a few days old; his mother worked hard, partied harder and was seldom home either. Her drinking might have stopped, but the yelling never did, which is why he decided to move in with his grandmother. At least there he has his own room, his own things, his own problems. Like this girl Tina, who doesn't like him the way he likes her, because she likes somebody else. They would talk all night on the phone, hang out, skip school together. Nobody gets him like she does. But it reached the point where he always wanted to be with her and always hurt when he was.
It isn't as though Bobby ever planned on ditching school; it's more like he was too bothered to get out of bed in the morning, too depressed, he says. He just can't deal with all the "smiling faces" at the North Dallas high school where he is enrolled as a junior but verging on flunking every course. It's not easy going to class when you feel lousy about yourself, at times even suicidal; when you hate school and want to be on your own; when no one in your family ever got past 10th grade, and no one gives a damn if you do either.
No one, that is, except truancy Judge Rey Chavez, who calls Bobby--whose name and identifying details have been changed to protect his privacy, like all juveniles mentioned in this story--before his bench this early March morning for the fifth time this school year. His grandmother stands beside him, looking as confused as he does, shaking her head as if to indicate she has lost control of the situation and her grandson.
A Dallas Independent School District court liaison informs the judge that Bobby has missed 11 school days since his last court appearance four weeks earlier, which brings his yearly total to more than 50 unexcused absences.
"So what's going on?" asks the judge, striking the tone of a concerned parent.
"I messed up," Bobby says, hanging his head low. "I was sick, and we've had a lot of car trouble."
"Have you turned in notes?"
"Sometimes, but the attendance office is packed with people."
The judge grows more impatient. "We have already fined you. We have sent you to boot camp. I guess the next step is to arrest you."
But there is something about Bobby that gives him pause, and Chavez doesn't pull the trigger. "Sit back down while I think about what I am going do with you." Judge Chavez reflexively reaches for the next file; he has no time to waste. His docket at the truancy court in North Dallas isn't just full, it's downright bloated--stuffed with approximately half of the 25,000 to 35,000 cases DISD expects to file this school year. Playing hooky may sound as though it's some picaresque pastime, the benign indiscretion of youthful daydreamers. But for chronic truants it can become a gateway to juvenile delinquency and a harbinger of dropping out altogether. Although its official dropout rates are notoriously understated, DISD administrators believe that more than 30 percent of ninth-graders never make it to graduation. Only within the last few years, however, has truancy made it to the forefront of criminal justice concerns. Dallas County has responded with a comprehensive truancy program that seeks to intervene early with both the carrot of social services and the stick of court sanctions.
Among the 200 truancy cases Judge Chavez will hear today are runaways and throwaways, drug abusers and gangbangers, pregnant teens who cut class because of morning sickness, students who overslept because they work late-night jobs to help their families and kids who just refuse to attend school because they are too angry or lazy or distraught.
"There is a story behind every student who is truant," says one high school attendance officer. "And school is usually not the reason."
Because the numbers he sees are so overwhelming, Judge Chavez may never hear those stories. Instead it is his charge to preside--along with a south truancy court that shares the caseload--over what amounts to a new social experiment, which, despite its noble motives, is as controversial as it is comprehensive, as political as it is educational, as punitive as it is preventive.
Until this school year, all DISD truancy cases were handled by 11 local justices of the peace, whose general dockets--ranging from traffic tickets to evictions--made it difficult for them to treat truancy with the urgency it deserved. Led by Commissioner Mike Cantrell, the Dallas County Commissioners Court wrestled away the demanding DISD truancy docket from JPs, whose intense lobbying efforts delayed but did not derail plans to create at least four new truancy courts.
Only two are up and running, but unlike JP courts, they dedicate themselves only to two low-grade misdemeanors: failure to attend school (filed against the student) and contributing to truancy (filed against the parent). Preliminary statistics reveal they are doing that job more efficiently than their predecessors, hearing more cases faster than ever before. These truancy courts, however, often dispense cookie-cutter justice; they are too few, too overworked and too focused on generating revenue. In the name of timeliness, the new system pumps up the number of truancy cases and shuts down the ability to intervene at the earliest opportunity. In the name of efficiency, it takes those who know most about our children--the campus truancy specialists--out of the court process and hampers the court's ability to make an informed judgment. What has been lost to uniformity is individual attention, which suffers in a system that is overburdened with cases and, at least until recently, unwilling to discriminate between the technically truant and the truly truant.