By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Despite mounting evidence of its success, the program has raised concerns among some civil libertarians who question whether the constant surveillance invades the privacy of students. State Senator Royce West, a powerful member of the Senate Education Committee, has also voiced his opposition to the program, maintaining that it treats kids like criminals.
Although DISD has appointed a liaison to the program, it has failed to back AIM with funding. The county commissioners court set aside $500,000 last year in its budget to expand the program with the expectation that DISD would match the funds. However, the district hasn't budgeted any money and has no plans to do so, even though it receives funding from the Texas Education Agency based on average daily attendance. DISD loses about $35 for each day a student is not in school, which adds up to millions in lost funding each year.
Jon Dahlander, spokesman for DISD, says the district did not have available funds to match the contribution from the county and notes that DISD is facing a tight budget year and a slight dip in enrollment, which makes funding the program "difficult if not impossible." He says the district would prefer to see the program work over the course of a full school year, but what they've seen over a six-week period is "very promising."
"We're constantly on the lookout for grants, and when and if we find something that this might match, we'd certainly consider it," he says.
At least one supporter of the program believes that DISD may be undermining the program because of its intractable focus on Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills testing. Bruce Leadbetter, an equity investor, claims the district encourages truants to drop out before taking the TAKS exams in order to keep their scores out of the overall school's performance.
"It is not in the schools' best interest to keep these kids," he says. "Their interest is putting them on the street to make it the county's or city's problem."
Dahlander claims that DISD has no indication that this is happening, and if so, the district would not advocate it. "We can't see any teacher who's in the education business—who's there for students, who wants to help students—actually encouraging students to drop out," he says.
Commissioner Cantrell has a long history of dealing with the school district's intransigence. "DISD has never taken the approach to truancy that it really needs to with the volume of kids that are dropping out of its schools," he says. "In my opinion, it's just not a high priority for them."
Cantrell is no stranger to Dallas County's truancy problems. He spent two-and-a-half years overseeing the juvenile docket in Garland as a municipal court judge before hearing hundreds of truancy cases in eight years as a justice of the peace for the Garland area. During his successful campaign for commissioner in 1994, truancy reform was part of his platform.
"Basically, there was really nothing we could do about truancy other than bluff kids to try to get them back to school," he says.
Shortly after taking office, Cantrell joined other state and local officials in an effort to change how the courts view truancy in Dallas County. He successfully lobbied the Legislature for a change in state law that empowered courts to initiate contempt proceedings against students failing to obey court orders to return to school. The new law took effect in 1996.
With the law on the books, the Dallas Challenge Truancy Enforcement Center was opened to receive contempt referrals from JPs. The TEC, referred to as a diversionary program, handles 1,500-2,000 cases yearly and works with truants for 90 days to help them avoid spending time in juvenile detention. TEC case managers interview each truant and assess whether they have problems with drugs, abuse or mental heath. If so, they can be immediately referred to any of approximately 40 cooperating county agencies.
But with their dockets filled with cases ranging from traffic tickets to evictions, the JPs were simply unable to deal with their overwhelming truancy docket, as the average case was taking 77 days from filing to court date. So in 1999, Cantrell began working on plans to create specialized truancy courts in Dallas County, two of which would exclusively serve DISD. But redistricting and repeated delays from the Dallas City Council and DISD postponed the courts' opening until 2002. A third truancy court overseeing DISD opened in 2003, and a fourth hearing cases from Garland, Mesquite and Richardson ISDs began operations in 2007.
These courts created a more efficient truancy system, allowing cases to be heard much more quickly, and reduced the annual number of DISD filings from 20,000 to approximately 15,000. Judge Rey Chavez of the north truancy court says the courts have also created more consistency in the process, and his cases are normally heard within 10 to 20 days from filing.
"That makes a big difference because if you wait 75 days before you get them into court, then that kid has already lost one or two semesters, possibly failing an entire year," Chavez says. "If I can get them in two to three weeks from the case filing, then I can at least save the year and hopefully the semester."