Texas Strikes Counterproductive Law on Unexcused School Absences

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June 20, 2015; New York Times

For most of us, a few unexplained truant days in grade school likely resulted in a chat with the principal and, at worst, a call home. But in Texas, school truancy is classified as a class-C misdemeanor, which has disproportionately affected black and Hispanic students. Now, Texas Governor Greg Abbot has signed a new measure to decriminalize unexcused absences effective September 1st.

In 2013 alone, Texas filed 115,000 truancy cases for those students who had three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools with students who had missed 10 days in six months were required to file a misdemeanor for failure to attend school. The law carried a hefty potential fine of $500, a fine some families had not been able to pay, leading their children through the court system.

Of course, the issue of truancy is not new, but students’ missing several days at a time is troubling. Teachers and school officials have tried for years to figure out how to stamp out chronic absenteeism productively. Criminal prosecution for missing school is different, and it has prompted the Justice Department to investigate whether it does more harm than good.

A study of the state’s truancy policy by social and economic justice advocacy group (and opponent of the law) Texas Appleseed found serious counterproductive effects, especially on black, Hispanic, and disabled students. Four out of five students sent to court for truancy were economically disadvantaged and eligible for free or reduced lunches. Over the course of three years, judges ordered about 6,400 students to drop out of school and take the GED test, only to fail. One in five of those students required special education.

As indicated in an article from NPR earlier this year, an illness, familial circumstances, or a learning disability could cause a student to miss school but would not warrant a court-ordered appearance. Instability at home or personal issues like pregnancy or drug use suggest that the student would benefit from support rather than incarceration.

“In the vast majority of cases, the school, working with the student and family, could address the truancy problem if it made meaningful attempts to do so,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, in the study. “Instead, schools often pass the responsibility to courts that are not designed, equipped or trained to provide meaningful assistance to students and their families.”

Texas Appleseed has filed a complaint with the Justice Department against the Dallas County truancy courts, which at 36,000 prosecuted more truant cases in 2012 than any other Texas County. Accord to Texas Appleseed’s study, despite the record number of truancy court cases, the state’s absenteeism has not improved.—Shafaq Hasan