The Texas Approach to Truancy: Curfews and Tickets


In Dallas, law enforcement officials say the existing process for dealing with truants is not working. That process is simple: officers pick up youths who are in public during school hours and return them to their school of record. The school takes it from there.

A new measure being considered by lawmakers would give cops more leverage. The law would allow Dallas - like its sister cities Houston, Austin and San Antonio - to impose a daytime curfew.

The research on curfews strongly indicates that they do not work. But that research pertains mostly to curfews meant to curtail the nighttime activity of youth.

National Truancy Prevention Association Executive Director Jay Smink said his group has not studied the Texas curfews, but he has not seen similar laws popping up anywhere else in the country. A 347-city survey put out 12 years ago by the U.S. Conference of Mayors showed 72 cities had daytime curfew laws. Every one of the 72 cities reported that the daytime curfew cut down on truancy, but you have to take that with a grain of salt; it does not appear that the municipalities were asked to back up their claims with truancy stats.

The motivation of politicians to pass curfews always will be questioned. On the law enforcement side, the motivation in Dallas appears to come from a genuine frustration with the current procedure.

"We've been powerless to deal with truants," said Lt. Robert Hinton of the Dallas Police Department (DPD), who has been tasked with spearheading promotion of the curfew. "It's left us with a public safety issue. [Youth are] out there committing crimes."

The main stat to back that up, identified by Hinton and then used by Mayor Pro Tem Elba Garcia in promoting the curfew: In 2007, 63 percent of 187 burglaries for which juveniles were arrested occurred during school hours.

Under the proposed law, a student picked up during school hours could get a $500 ticket for violating curfew. The officers involved could also choose to ticket the parents of the child, or fine business owners who regularly allow truants to hang out in or around their shops. 

Will it work? Nobody bothered to ask the county juvenile justice department for feedback on the measure, said its director, Mike Griffiths. He thinks it will not make "a significant dent" in the county's truancy problem.

Griffiths cited two specific problems with the new measure. First, where will the officers take all of these youths? Standard operation for picking up juveniles accused of delinquent acts is to take them to central youth division booking where a group of detectives work on their release. Adding a slew of daytime curfew violators to that mix could flood the operation; field releases of youth to parents or schools might tax the time of the officers. In the ever-creative drug market, imagine dealers sending youth out to get caught on truancy charges, moving patrol units away from more serious illegal transactions.  

Hinton was adamant that would not happen. Police won't do anything they aren't already doing except give out the ticket; "it's not going to increase patrol officers' workloads," Hinton told JJ Today.

Griffiths's other concern is that "they have not considered the race/class/culture aspects" of a daytime curfew. The Houston Chronicle reported last year on the disparate enforcement of the curfew in different parts of that city.

On the other hand, curfew proponents in Dallas can point to nearby Hurst-Euless-Bedford school district as a argument to try the new law. After the school district lost state appropriations last year because of high truancy rates, a daytime curfew was established and violation of it was made a misdemeanor. In the year since, the number of unexcused absences dropped from 22,805 to 13,800.

The Austin Police Department said its daytime curfew did have an impact on juvenile crime. Juvenile arrests as a percentage of all arrests was 12 percent before the daytime curfew was imposed there in 1990 and 7 percent last year; there is no way to prove daytime curfews were the driving force, but APD does report that more than half of curfew citations now take place during the day.

Now, did daytime curfews have a positive impact on truancy? The Texas Education Agency  (TEA) says it does not collect information on unexcused absences from school districts. Which is interesting, since the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission lists TEA on its website as the agency that can provide information on truancy.

A press officer at the Houston Independent School District wasn't sure if the district tracked unexcused absences. Austin Independent School District told us to file an open records request for truancy data. Honestly, should it be this hard to find out truancy patterns from areas that are essentially making it a misdemeanor to be truant?

It will also be interesting to see if Dallas can really collect truancy fines. For parents, it's not unlike a traffic ticket; those unpaid fines would remain on a driver's record. Forcing juveniles to pay fines is possible; a municipal court judge could hold them in contempt and lock them up somewhere, Hinton says. But would a judge really lock up a student, forcing him to miss school, for a penalty that started with his missing school?

Hinton says one possibility being considered is to use the fine as leverage by offering youths the option of attending some intervention program in lieu of payment.