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Absent Without Leave

Dallas County has responded to the burgeoning truancy problem with a comprehensive enforcement program that uses both the carrot of social services with the stick of court sanctions. Pictured above is the stick. Below, Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell has led the charge to remove truancy authority from the county's justices of the peace and vest it in specialized truancy courts under the control of the county commissioners.
Mark Graham

There is something about the boy's eyes--half-shut and lifeless--that may hold the clue to his truancy. They mirror a depression driven by emotions too big and confusing for the 17-year-old to manage. But ask Bobby Malone why he cuts class and he will tell you flat-out: He is ready to be done with school.

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."

"Yes, sir."

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.

At the first court appearance, parents can be expected to pay fines and court costs; kids are ordered to return to school and report back within 30 days to review their compliance. Only if students continue their truant ways does the system begin to address the root cause of their truancy.

But for Bobby Malone and others like him that may be too late.


Of all the monumental issues that dogged DISD--desegregation, white flight, the widening achievement gap--truancy scarcely made it onto the bureaucratic radar screen until 1996. "DISD just didn't take truancy that seriously," recalls Commissioner Cantrell. Instead, the district attempted to motivate students to stay in school through positive reinforcement, offering rewards and recognition to those who had perfect or improved attendance. That might have worked for the DISD students of the '70s and '80s, says H.B. Bell, the associate superintendent who oversees the district's truancy program, "but the '90s saw a change in many of the students who were skipping school."

Some students, he says, saw less value in receiving a high school diploma when, at 16, they were already working, buying their own cars, having their own kids. They didn't understand why they had to know the capital of Montana or the square root of 289 when there was easy money on the streets and their parents were so uninvolved or overworked that they had no idea where their kids were, much less where their report cards were hidden. These hardcore truants weren't going to be motivated by a perfect attendance pin. They had to be forced back to school.

"As an educator, I would like not to be on board with an enforcement program," Bell says. "But incentives don't work for all youngsters and parents. Enforcement becomes a necessary evil."

His view was bolstered by study after study showing that truancy is not only a powerful predictor of the dropout rate and all its resulting social disadvantages such as poverty and poor-paying jobs but is also an early warning of future involvement in crime--gang activity, drug use, daytime burglaries. With juvenile crime alarming the public, lawmakers responded by enacting legislation that treated kids more like adults in baggy pants. Aggressive enforcement of truancy laws by the schools, social services and the courts was seen as way to stem the problem before it got out of hand.

When Cantrell first became a justice of the peace in 1987, he recalls that truancy cases could only be filed against parents, not children. "We could only bluff the children into going back to school," he says. "So we went to the Legislature in 1995 and put into law that the child could be held accountable."

Economics certainly encouraged school districts to get on board with this new get-tough attitude. Because Texas doles out dollars based on average daily attendance, increased attendance rates can help ease the budget woes of strapped school districts. By 1996, the district had established its "Attendance Improvement and Truancy Reduction Program," which devised a computerized early-warning system that got parents involved by sending them letters after their kids had three unexcused absences and operated weekly forums that sought to educate parents about the legalities and hazards of truancy.

The front line of defense, however, was the designated campus truancy specialists, many of whom approached their jobs with evangelical zeal. They knew which parents were the enablers, those who wrote notes for every headache and heartache and attempted to excuse the inexcusable. They knew the dads who were too illiterate to give a damn about their kid's education or the moms who insisted their older daughters baby-sit for their younger. They knew the kids who were just habitual foot draggers and could be handled with a parent conference; the kids who needed more social service intervention because they had a drug habit, an abusive parent, a child of their own; and they knew those who needed stiffer court-ordered sanctions because they felt no compunction whatsoever about skipping school.

 

Based on that personal knowledge, it made sense for these truancy specialists to testify in court. State law makes it illegal for students to miss (without excuse) three days of school in a four-week period, or 10 days in a sixth-month period. Parts of days missed are treated as full days. The law vests broad discretion with these truancy specialists to make the hard call over whether to file a case.

By the end of the 1995-'96 school year, the district had filed 10,989 cases--more than 10 times the number it had filed in the preceding year. This deluge was handled by 11 of the county's 14 elected justices of the peace. Some felt overwhelmed by truancy cases, while others refused to make them a priority, even though the academic clock was ticking. Yet for other JPs, truancy became a passion, a chance to make a difference in the lives of kids who had lost their way. "It was the closest thing we did to social work," says JP Jim Terry, whose precinct includes Farmers Branch and parts of Dallas.

The more truancy-conscious JPs such as Luis Sepulveda handled each case individually, attempting to fashion a remedy to fit the child or parent. Students were ordered into counseling and community service, parents were sentenced to the PTA. "I looked for programs that had positive consequences for the kids, things that would make the kids feel responsible about themselves," Sepulveda says. "I didn't fine them that often. It wasn't a big moneymaker for the county."

Incorrigible truants who simply refused to abide by the JP's orders would be handcuffed and turned over to the Truancy Enforcement Center, where they would be briefly placed in a holding cell as a not-so-subtle threat of what future violations might bring. But truants as well as their parents were quickly evaluated by caseworkers, who sought to deal with the causes of their truant behavior. If possible, all would sign off on an intensive intervention plan that would be approved and monitored by an associate juvenile court judge. In the worst scenarios, a child might be removed from his home. "We have about a 65 percent success rate out of the enforcement center," Cantrell says. "No one else in the state has as comprehensive a truancy program as we do."

That comprehensiveness was the reason the district's truancy reduction program recently received an award of excellence from the National Dropout Prevention Center. Citing a remarkable improvement in DISD attendance rates from 1995-2000, the network found that in a random sampling of "truant students who appeared in front of one judge...95 percent of adjudicated elementary school students and 74 percent of adjudicated secondary students improved their attendance after a court appearance."

Despite the success of the program, DISD sought a more responsive system that might intervene quicker and with greater uniformity. "It was a nightmare for them to have to run to 11 different courts with 11 different processes and 11 different attitudes," Cantrell says. "Because JP courts are not specialized, their dockets did not permit them to hear the volume of truancy cases we have in Dallas County. By the time you add hot checks, traffic tickets, small claims and mental illness, there is only so much courtroom time you have." He contends that it took JPs an average of 79 days to hear cases after they were filed.

Several JPs question the accuracy of those numbers and believe that the county commissioners weren't as concerned with results as they were with revenue. These judges resisted setting fines, standardized or otherwise. "It's dishonest to assess fines against kids for missing school because they were trying to support their families," says one JP.

Cantrell has little patience for these complaints. "Any money generated from the program is targeted to go right back into the program to make it better," he says. "The JPs knew the system was broke...They didn't complain until we tried to fix it."

Fixing it sparked a nasty turf war between the commissioners and the justices of the peace, who grew afraid that their power was being usurped, which it was. Cantrell promoted a plan that would eliminate the authority of JPs over truancy matters by setting up truancy courts appointed by and accountable to the commissioners. To Terry and other JPs, the commissioners were using the truancy issue to justify what they'd sought for years. "It appears that the commissioners court doesn't want the JPs to exist," Terry says. "For some reason we are a burr under their saddle."

 

Cantrell dismisses that view as "paranoia." "The JPs are afraid that by taking truancy out, it is undermining their positions, and we are going to try to do away with them altogether," he said. "That is totally incorrect."

On June 12, 2001, the commissioners court reduced the number of JP precincts in Dallas County from eight to five, effectively eliminating three justices of the peace through redistricting. Greater efficiency was cited as the primary motivation for making the change, but it was clear that the commissioners were punishing judges such as Charles Rose, whom they had accused of mismanagement, and Fletcher Freedman, whom they accused of underperforming. "We had a number of JPs that were not doing anything," Cantrell says. "Why should citizens be paying for courts [JPs earn $84,528 a year] we really didn't need?"

Within a week, Cantrell rolled out a plan for four new truancy courts, and The Dallas Morning News began to editorialize on its behalf. DISD administration was also on board, but the JPs began to organize, finding sympathizers among school trustees and city council members. "Why would you get rid of three JPs and then try to create four truancy courts if you were trying to save money?" asks one courthouse insider. "Because the commissioners want to appoint their own judges--judges they can control."

Cantrell didn't anticipate the kind of backwash he got from the JPs. The commissioners prematurely began to dismantle the JPs' truancy authority without a go-ahead from the Dallas City Council, which was needed because under state law at the time, the new courts would be municipal courts. The plan lingered in a council committee for nearly a year, but finally momentum, the mayor and an unconscionable backlog of unheard cases caused the full council to adopt the plan.

"You can paint anyone as the bad guy," says Judge Terry, "as long as you make it about the children."


Bobby Malone has done this before, moving easily from one long line to the next in the north truancy court on Marsh Lane. Never did he think he would get so many chances, although he was convinced his luck was about to run out today. At his first court appearance in November, he pleaded guilty and was fined, just the same as everyone else. His mother was paying it off in weekly installments, and she was really pissed. That wasn't enough to get him to attend school regularly, and he skipped another eight times. The next month at his review hearing, the judge sentenced him to boot camp, which wasn't so bad really; he was used to a lot of yelling from his mother.

Between court hearings, he met with Don Williams, the court's social service coordinator, and he told him about the problems with his mother, his love life, his depression. Williams was nice enough, he says, gave him a test, and then basically told him to buck up--said everyone was depressed.

By the next review hearing, Bobby had missed another 11 days and just didn't care anymore. But Williams seemed to care: He listened as Bobby told him about his love of cars, how he hated his school but thought Skyline, with its auto mechanics classes, might be the right high school for him. Williams told him Skyline was a possibility for next year, but first he had to prove to the judge he was done skipping school. Williams went to bat for him and got Bobby another month. He tried to go to school, but stuff kept happening: His car broke down; he got sick; his mom needed help with his little brother. Now it's March, he's facing another 10 unexcused absences, and he is resigned to going to jail. He even cleaned his room this morning.

The judge is running late, however, and Bobby's review hearing hasn't started. The place is mobbed with 30 or so bored kids and an equal number of frustrated parents. "Why don't you get more staff?" asks one parent. But the DISD employee pays him no mind. She is too busy in her role as traffic cop, sorting the kids who are no longer truant (about half, she says) from those kids who still are. Bobby waits in a crowded room among those who still are.

Inside the no-frills courtroom, Judge Rey Chavez begins his arraignment for first-timers. Unlike the old system, he doesn't bring them before the bench to explain them their rights or give them the immediate individual attention they might otherwise need. With 100 new truancy cases each day, Chavez must scare the hell out of them en masse. "Students, please understand you will be back in school, each day, every day, on time," he announces, pausing to give a Spanish-speaking interpreter time to translate. "The only decision you have to make is if you do it voluntarily or if the court will force you back to school."

 

Chavez then recites a frightening array of progressively worsening sanctions: For those under 17 who willfully violate his court order, there is a contempt-of-court charge and possibly arrest and transport to the Truancy Enforcement Center where, after a negative assessment, a recalcitrant truant can be removed from his home and "placed in a lockdown facility." But even there they will be required to attend school. "You have to decide if you want your mother waking you up or some guard," the judge says. For those 17 or older, there could be repeated trips to jail for repeated violations. Of course, "We have never sent anyone to jail more than once."

If these were elementary or middle school students, only their parents would be named as defendants. Because these students are in high school, the district has pressed charges against them rather than their parents. "You can be fined up to $500 and be ordered to attend various programs," the judge says.

Because this is a criminal proceeding, rights must first be waived and pleas entered. Plead guilty or no contest, says the judge, and he won't be ordering much more than was already required of them: Attend school, don't break the law, and pay court costs of $72 and a fine of $300. Since February, the judge doesn't require community service and tutoring as part of his initial court order. These conditions clogged up the courts with kids who were already back in school but hadn't done their community service.

One by one, students in varying states of confusion and comprehension either plead guilty or no contest (one girl pleads "no comment"). Each receives the same standardized punishment--an answer to the disparate treatment the district claimed truants received under the old system--but one that raises a host of other concerns.

The court's goal is some kind of judicial "shock and awe," an attention-grabbing intervention that yanks students into court quickly and coerces kids back to the classroom. Under the new system, says Judge Chavez, after a warning letter has been sent to a parent and a student then accumulates three or more unexcused absences in four weeks, the computer kicks out an affidavit and a criminal complaint. These rapid, automated filings have in just one year doubled the number of DISD truancy cases to 28,670 in 2001-'02 and are filling the truancy court with cases that may generate revenue for the county but might never have been filed under the old system. Removed from the filing decision are campus truancy specialists, who screened the occasional skippers from the chronic truants. "Save the courts for those who need special services and more drastic intervention," pleads one campus attendance officer. "What good is early intervention if all you are doing is fining them?"

It wasn't much good for one teen-age truant who just received a fine during "a rocket docket," says another campus truancy specialist. "The judge never learned that the reason she was skipping was because she was running away from some gang members. She could have used some gang intervention right then and there. Today, no one knows where she is."

The truancy specialist (who asked not to be identified out of fear of retribution by the district) says she never knew that the girl, who attended her school, was even scheduled for court. "They [the district] have told us they don't want the schools at the courthouse anymore," she says. "We are the ones in the trenches. The people downtown don't know our kids." Instead, DISD has staffed the truancy courts with district area liaisons who have no history with the students or their parents and present the district's case, mostly from attendance records. Aside from an occasional phone call seeking background information on a student, the campus truancy specialists have been removed from the court equation and replaced with eight overworked and less knowledgeable staffers.

Even Associate Superintendent H.B. Bell is no fan of universal fines, which he calls "a double whammy" in many instances. "I am not a proponent of taking money from the people who need it the most and putting it into the system." Perhaps that is why the district has recently begun to divert some of its more benign truants away from the court system before filing. At least in some cases, it is beginning to screen the technically truant from more habitual offenders and choosing to send them to community service programs that offer them positive consequences rather than punitive sanctions. As a member of the Truancy Coordination Board that oversees the courts, Bell is aware that other board members, Cantrell among them, are "more concerned about the fines because it pays for the system." The district's concern, he says, is getting kids back in school.

 

Which is precisely what Cantrell says the new system is doing faster and more efficiently than ever before. He cites county performance measures, which show that the average number of days to docket for these truancy cases has been reduced from 79 under the JP system to 19 days under the new. "Our target has always been 10-15 days, but we're getting there." He agrees that the system has become depersonalized through mass arraignments and uniform punishments, but on balance he doesn't think that's a bad thing. "It's a sifting-down process," he says. "We are trying to have an impact on the highest number of students...We don't have the resources to spend on 35,000 kids when most of them are going to return to school just by being taken to court and fined." Better to save your more meaningful intervention, argues Cantrell, for those truants who need it most.

That assumes, of course, that they can be sifted from among the masses before it's too late.


Waiting for the judge to start the review hearing, a DISD court liaison leans wearily against the bench, counting the days until spring break and wondering aloud if she can make it that long. Rumor has it that the day before, the social services coordinator in the south truancy court broke into tears, facing 400 cases in one day. Yesterday's count at the north court was 260 cases, both new and review. Judge Chavez worked his staff through lunch and into the night. No one doubts anyone's dedication.

Taking the bench, the judge becomes more animated during the review hearing. Here is where the new system begins to show its concern. Here is where an understanding nod or a guiding hand can save kids from their circumstances. Handcuffs are waiting for those students who need to be saved from themselves.

Bobby Malone figures one pair is meant for him, particularly after it became obvious that Bobby didn't care enough to turn in the excuse notes his grandmother had written. It surprised him when the judge told him to take a seat in the courtroom while he considered what to do with him.

Chavez doesn't show the same hesitancy with the slight Asian-American girl whose mother was crying as they approached the bench. The DISD court liaison alleged the daughter had two additional unexcused absences since her February court appearance.

"She ran away!" insists her mother. "She doesn't go to school. She yells at me. She ran away twice!"

"We need to find out why she is running away," Chavez says calmly.

But the mother already knew. "She hangs out with an 18-year-old and runs away to the boyfriend's mother's house."

"That's harboring a runaway," the judge says.

"She is only 15."

The judge instructs his bailiff to handcuff the girl, who remains expressionless and silent, unwilling to give her mother the benefit of an emotion. She will be taken to the Letot Center, a short-term residential facility that provides counseling and emergency care for runaways and their families. The judge also orders the girl not to associate with her boyfriend.

If only he could have done the same for an African-American girl who is wearing an oversized red sweatshirt and has eight unexcused absences. "When is your baby due?" he asks.

"My doctor says the end of March."

It is all the judge can do to convince her to go to parenting classes, much less attend school every day.

Chavez has more luck getting the attention of Jorge Rodriguez, who had five unexcused absences since his last court appearance and then withdrew from school a week later. He was now in a redirections program, an alternative school for students with alcohol and drug problems.

"I was under the influence of marijuana," he tells the court.

"I want you to talk to Mr. Williams, the social service coordinator," says Judge Chavez. "I want to make certain there aren't any other issues we are not dealing with here."

"Yes, sir."

"Next time you come back here, I am going to have you tested for drugs. If you test dirty, that's a violation of your court order."

 

Don Williams is a big, bald-headed man, a former parole officer who says this is the best job he's ever had. He is also a one-man referral agency, interviewing kids, their parents, administering a mini-assessment test and deciding the best match between truant and social services provider. He gets maybe 45 minutes to do this, and he does it at least 10 times a day. "When Dr. Bell came into my office, he wanted to know where the other 10 of me were," he says. He does recall Bobby Malone, though--agrees he's been having a hard time. "Basically, he is more mature than his mother," Williams says. "He is fundamentally a good kid. He even drove himself to boot camp."

Boot camp, anywhere from one to four Saturday sessions, is clearly the sanction of choice for those who continue to skip school. "It really gets their attention," Williams says.

It couldn't have done much, however, for Juan Rivas, a stout boxer who tells the judge he didn't need school because he is going to turn pro.

"I wouldn't count on that," cautions the judge.

"It's always in his head, judge," says his mother. "All he ever wants to do is train. He has many trophies."

Juan is 17, but reads far below his grade level. His mother says she was embarrassed, being a teacher herself.

A 17-year-old in ninth or 10th grade is so close to adulthood and so far from graduation, many of them figure it's easier to drop out. Chavez says that they (as well as pregnant students) are the hardest group to motivate. "I have no idea why you are being so stubborn," the judge tells Juan. "Without an education, you are working at McDonald's or working construction. And what if you hurt your back? You won't have the brains to help you out."

"I know I have got boxing skills, judge."

"What if you break your hand, then what happens?" says the judge. "For every Julio Cesar Chavez, there are hundreds who don't make it."

"Yes, sir."

"I am ordering all $300 of your fine and court costs due now," he says. "If you don't go to school, I will hold you in contempt and fine you another $500."

"Yes, sir."

"I am not going to let you be ignorant for the rest of your life."

The judge must have felt the same way about Bobby Malone, because he gives him the same punishment. Rather than lock him up, he ups his fine. He orders him to return to school immediately and return to court on April 3 for his latest in a series of second chances.

"I can do this," Bobby says later. "It's more of a hassle going to court than it is going to school."


If Cantrell gets his way, the Texas Legislature will give Dallas County commissioners the authority to appoint magistrates who will hear truancy cases for DISD as well as the other 14 school districts throughout the county. Although it's opposed by JPs who believe it is another attempt to legislate them out of existence, this legislation is part of Cantrell's master plan for a "truly comprehensive truancy system"--four or more courts within the county, all under the commissioners' control, that will track truants from the time they enter the system until the time they graduate, if they do. No longer will truants and the families who enable them be able to wander from school district to district, ditching school and dodging process. All cases will be processed from a centralized location; all districts will be able to file electronically with the courts. "If something is effective, we will use it," he says. "If it's not working, it will be changed."

If the case of Bobby Malone is any indication of effectiveness, the new truancy system still has its work cut out for it. On April 3, Bobby returned to truancy court and had eight new unexcused absences to defend.

He was depressed, he said, because he had fallen so far behind in school. What was the point of going when he had no hope of passing? Judge Chavez could have made that point by putting Bobby behind bars for a few days. Instead, he ordered that Bobby enter a "reconnection center," an alternative DISD program that can accelerate his learning through online instruction and enable him to make up for lost time. Chavez appears to understand that the true measure of whether truancy enforcement works is whether students such as Bobby make it to graduation day.

"I have two years of school left," Bobby says. "I hope I can make it. I just don't know if I can."


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