Activists File Complaint with Feds, Say Dallas County Truancy Courts Violate Students' Rights

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Dallas County established its truancy courts a decade ago with the hope that a specialized judicial system would better address the root causes of chronic absenteeism (mental health problems, family issues, etc.) than school discipline or adult courts. County Judge Clay Jenkins has declared the program a success, saying they process cases more quickly and are key in "getting kids back on the right track."

But not everyone thinks the county's truancy courts are so swell. Three advocacy groups -- Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Disability Rights Texas -- filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department today alleging that Dallas County and partnering school districts (Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson ISD) have violated the civil rights of the 36,000 kids who have passed through.

Their main beef is that the truancy courts amount to a criminal justice system -- the students who wind up there are charged with Class C misdemeanors for missing 10 or more days of school -- that robs defendants of privacy protections and the right to counsel provided in juvenile civil courts.

"With no access to an attorney and little understanding of their rights and remedies, Dallas County students are almost guaranteed a criminal conviction," the groups write in their complaint.

They filed the complaint on behalf of seven students caught up in the truancy court system. Their cases, the complaint says, shows the inflexibility and unfairness of the system.

One girl was charged for missing a month of school after delivering her baby. Another student was the primary caretaker of her chronically ill mother and had to miss class when her condition worsened. Another was dragged to court because, due to an administrative error, her class schedule didn't match the school's attendance record. Another was kept home for several stretches because of chronic asthma.

Jenkins and district officials quibble with some of the details, which they say are exaggerated. Contrary to the claim the advocacy groups make in their complaint, students are not handcuffed for truancy violations; they're restrained only when they pose a threat to others, they told The Dallas Morning News. Jenkins said the organizations spent days at the truancy courts "harassing" families in hopes of building a case.

Texas Appleseed and the rest stand by these claims and say that the system should be ended. But their aim is larger than the abolition of truancy courts. They want the DOJ to "declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy" -- a practice exclusive to Texas and Wyoming -- "to be a violation of their Eighth Amendment constitutional rights."

Instead, they argue that school districts should work to establish "a system of school and community-based programs" to intervene and avoid the judicial system altogether.

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