Big Changes Are Coming to Dallas County's Godawful Truancy Courts

Dallas County used to be pretty damn proud of how it handled truancy cases. In a 2005 letter to then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, District Attorney Bill Hill wrote with evident satisfaction of the swiftness and ferocity with which students were punished for chronic absenteeism. In 1996, a year after Texas lawmakers made failure to attend school a class C misdemeanor, the county established the Dallas Challenge Contempt Enforcement Center, which was tasked with making sure kids complied with the orders handed down by the justices of the peace who heard their cases. "A critical agreement was reached with all concerned that gave increased credibility to the program: failures at the Contempt Center would be sent to the Dallas County Detention Center, and the District Attorney would file the contempt cases in district court," Hill wrote. "This was a major step forward and lent credence to the idea that Dallas County was serious about truancy. It insured that truancy cases would not fall through any 'cracks' in the system."

Another step forward, Hill wrote, came in 2003 with the creation of Dallas County's first specialized truancy courts, which removed truancy cases from the dockets of overburdened JPs and put them before specially designated magistrates, knocking the average case length from 75 days to two or three weeks. These courts offered prosecutors yet another weapon in their battle to keep kids in school. As a matter of established procedure, truants who continued skipping school or otherwise failed to comply with court directives would be handcuffed by a uniformed bailiff and taken to Dallas County's "Truancy Enforcement Center," where they would spend several hours. "This 'custody' step is designed to get their attention and reinforce the idea that the consequences for chronic truancy are real and inevitable." Just in the last few years, County Judge Clay Jenkins' office was praising the truancy courts for their "consistency in expectations and outcomes" and effectiveness in "getting kids back on the right track."

No one's bragging about the truancy courts any more. On the contrary, over the past two years, thanks largely to the work of criminal justice reform advocates, most notably the Austin-based nonprofit Texas Appleseed, the system has become a black mark on the entire state. Texas is the only state besides Wyoming that sends kids to adult criminal courts for truancy, and Dallas does so far, far more than anywhere else. According to data collected by Texas Appleseed, Dallas County truancy courts handled 36,036 cases in fiscal year 2012, nearly three times as many as JPs and municipal courts in Harris County, even though the latter's student-age population is significantly larger. And the attempts to scare them straight didn't always stop at a few hours at a truancy enforcement center. Since 2013, at least 22 students 17 years old and above were jailed in Dallas County for failing to pay truancy fines.

Even if one accepts that criminal penalties up to and including jail are the best way to address truancy — and the sky-high number of truancy cases in Texas suggests that they're not — the system has been revealed as a kafkaesque mess. In a 2013 complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Justice, Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law describe Dallas-area students being ordered to truancy court because they'd missed school to care for an ailing mother or to comply with a doctor's order of bed rest following a difficult pregnancy or because the school had mistakenly classified absences as unexcused. The districts' attendance systems were linked to the courts and, according to the complaint, a criminal charge would be filed more or less automatically once the computer registered 10 unexcused absences, leaving families to plead their cases to the magistrates. There were other troubling elements. Kids pushed into truancy courts were disproportionately minorities. They often reported being bullied by judges and magistrates into entering guilty pleas. And while the roughly $3 million it costs to operate the truancy courts comes from Dallas County's general fund, according to the 2015 county budget, its not much of a stretch to think that court personnel might covet truancy fines as a source of revenue.  "It costs $450,000 to run this courtroom. Who's going to pay for it?" Judge John Sholden scolded one Garland ISD student who protested his $195 fine, according to a report in The Atlantic. "Do you think the taxpayers of Garland should pay for it?" 

Deborah Fowler, Texas Appleseed's executive director, says that the criminalization of truancy was a deeply regrettable outgrowth of Texas' tough-on-crime mania of the '80s and '90s. The system it established is riddled with flaws. Not only does it remove kids from the gentler juvenile justice system and saddle them with criminal records and hundreds of dollars in fines and court costs they often struggle to pay, the system has virtually no checks. Because defendants in class C misdemeanor cases don't have a right to an attorney, and because few hire one on their own, there's  "nothing really acting to push back on the high volume of cases" — or, for that matter, to stand up for the rights and best interest of the kid.

U.S. Attorney Genreal Eric Holder announced an investigation into Dallas County's truancy courts in March as part of an effort to "eliminat[e] the school-to-prison pipeline" and "protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances." The investigation is reportedly ongoing. In the meantime, the Texas Legislature has stepped in. Under a new truancy law that goes into effect on September 1, Dallas County's truancy courts and the school districts that feed them cases will have to drastically change the way they operate.

The new law has two major prongs. The first changes the procedure by which cases are filed. For starters, school districts will be required to intervene much more aggressively in individual truancy cases by either creating a detailed behavioral intervention plan spelling out expected behavior and consequences or through referral to counseling or mediation. The law prevents schools from referring cases in which absences were the result of pregnancy, homelessness, being in foster care or being a family’s main breadwinner. As an added protection for students, all cases will have to be forwarded to the court, which will review it to make sure it meets the relevant portions of the law, then to a prosecutor, who will decide whether or not to file the case.

The second prong significantly eases the potential consequences. Truancy will become a civil, rather than criminal, matter. Judges will be allowed to issue remedial orders and, if they are ignored, suspend a student’s driver’s license and fine them $100, but three-figure fines as a standard punishment, as well as the prospect of being jailed for failing to pay, will be gone. Truancy will no longer be recorded on a student’s criminal record. Those who were charged with failure to attend school under existing law will have their records expunged.

Experts expect the number of truancy cases processed by the courts to plummet. The stricter standards on school districts will go a long way toward lowering the numbers, says Bronson Tucker, an attorney with the Texas Justice Court Training Center, which works with the state’s JPs, but so will forcing a prosecutor to review each one. Prosecutors already burdened by a heavy caseload are unlikely to welcome hundreds or thousands of truancy cases. “Some school districts have farmed out discipline to the court system,” Tucker says. The new measure, he says, makes the court system more of a “last resort.”

Dallas ISD spokesman Andre Riley says the district has always been proactive about addressing truancy. For instance, as part of its counseling and intervention programs, DISD high school students did 30,000 hours of community service. In addition, each case was reviewed both by a campus administrator and a district attendance officer before being filed in court. That said, DISD is fine-tuning its procedures in preparation for the new law. "In light of th new legislation, Dallas ISD has added another level of review at the campus level and a process is being developed for schools to document all of the prevention measures they implement," Riley said. "In the past it was not that Dallas ISD failed to provide interventions, but rather many interventions went unreported."

Richardson ISD spokesman Tim Clark predicted that the law will have only a modest impact on the district. "The new requirements will basically formalize what has already been happening. For example, we’re developing specific forms for things like behavioral plans that in the past may have existed in the form of counselor’s notes," he says. Mesquite and Garland ISDs did not respond to a request for comment.

The law will likely be most jarring for Dallas County, which has turned truancy into a multi-million dollar cottage industry, with five truancy courts employing 40 people plus a $600,000 annual contract with nonprofit Dallas Challenge to run the Truancy Enforcement Center. Exactly how the county will adapt to the new law is a mystery, even to Dallas Challenge CEO Tim James. "We have been told unofficially — quite unofficially — that we will no longer be providing services and that our $600,000 contract is being ended." Otherwise, he has no idea of how Dallas County's truancy courts will change, which he finds somewhat worrisome given that the law goes into effect in just over two weeks.

James says he supports decriminalizing truancy and has never supported the practice of handcuffing kids to bring them to the Truancy Enforcement Center. "That's not our idea," he says. "[When] they were brought to us in handcuffs the first thing we did was take the handcuffs off." But James worries that the new law might not be tough enough to reach the 1,500 or so kids referred to the Truancy Enforcement Center each year. Those are the hard cases, the ones with emotional or substance abuse issues who can't  be reached except through aggressive, court-ordered intervention. The new law "shifts the responsibility for who deals with truant youth, but it doesn't change the fact that there are truant youth, nor does it change the fact that those youth will need the same intervention ... that we've been providing for 10 years," James says.

Fowler, with Texas Appleseed, thinks the new law puts truancy back where it should be — in a civil process crafted for juveniles. "We're really optimistic, and we think the new law is going to a long way in addressing the problems we've seen when we've started looking at truancy in Texas."
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson