For Diane Tran, 17, there just weren’t enough hours in the day. The Texas honor student maintained stellar grades, while holding down two jobs to help support her siblings. Everyday after school she worked at a dry cleaners and on weekends worked for a wedding consultant.
With mounting fatigue from both school and work, she piled up 18 unexcused absences and eventually drew the wrath of a judge who hears truancy cases in Willis, a small community about 50 miles north of Houston.
In late May, Tran was jailed overnight on a contempt of court charge for disregarding a previous warning about excessive absences. With the help of a Houston attorney who volunteered his services, she was out of jail in short order and saw the arrest expunged from her record.
Just of the Peace Lanny Moriarty of Willis rescinded his original order but vowed in a statement “to continue to hold students, and sometimes parents, accountable for unexcused absences as we work to reduce truancy, lower the drop-out rate, and instill in tomorrow’s leaders the belief that rules and laws must be followed by all for society to properly function.”
Tran’s brief but highly publicized crisis has fueled a long-running debate in Texas over how to handle truancy. From coast to coast, chronic absenteeism is a problem that plagues schools and school systems. Educators worry that absent students not only jeopardize their educational progress but may be eventually drawn into delinquent activities.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, A 2012 report by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools found that chronic absenteeism is “most prevalent among low-income students.” Missing school compounds their problems with academic success and reaching on-time high school graduation.
In Texas public schools, a student is considered truant after 10 or more unexcused absences in a six-month period or three or more unexcused absences in a four-week period. Such absences can be for one class period or an entire school day. A typical school year lasts 180 days.
“Oh, we’ve heard it all,” said one attendance officer. “Everything from ‘I don’t like that teacher’ to ‘I can’t get up that early’ to ‘The sun was shining too bright that day,’ ” said Barry Smith, the assistant director of attendance for the Forth Worth Independent School District (ISD).
A Broken System
For more than a decade, Texas school districts have been authorized to issue criminal tickets for common school offenses. Having excessive absences, using foul language or fighting on campus can result in Class C misdemeanors, which come with court costs and fines up to $500. Offenders as young as 10 have found themselves before a judge. Last year, almost 96,000 “failure to attend” cases were filed with Texas municipal court judges or justices of the peace, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration.
“It’s a broken system,” complained state Sen. John Whitmire of Houston, who views the Diane Tran case as an example of how students with too many absences can end up “labeled a criminal or a troublemaker.”
When school ticketing was instituted in Texas in the late 1990s, supporters argued the crackdown would increase school safety and productivity. Law enforcement blamed a good portion of daytime property crimes on idle teens, and linked truancy with drug use and gang activity.
For school districts, maintaining high averages of daily student attendance is also important because attendance is a prime funding mechanism for receiving state revenue. In the 2011-2012 school year, the per-pupil expenditure averaged about $8,800. Multiple financing formulas come into play, but most state funding is based on average daily attendance, the types of students enrolled (special education, bilingual, etc.) and the district’s overall property wealth. On average, Texas school districts earn about $37 in state funding for every day a student is in school.
In hindsight, critics say the crackdown has criminalized truancy and needlessly exposed youngsters to the criminal justice system. For young people at risk of dropping out of school, a trip to court might lead them to drop out altogether.
“Students should be held accountable for their behavior,” Whitmire said, “but criminalizing misbehavior and issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets is not the answer.”
Policy and Prevention
As chairman of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire led a campaign in 2011 to modify the proliferation of ticketing. Senate Bill 1489, which took effect last fall, bars campus police from issuing tickets to students younger than 12 or older than 17. And before referring cases to court, schools must attempt intervention measures to address the student conduct.
For cases that end up before a judge, the district must prove that truancy prevention steps were exhausted. If a truant student complies with conditions required by the court, the complaint will be dismissed and the youth’s record cleared.
Texas may well stand alone in its statewide policy authorizing school districts to ticket truants. Kathy Christie of the Education Commission of the States said she knows of no other state taking the same approach; however, a number of states do authorize penalties as part of compulsory school attendance. This can be in the form of fines directed at the parents or the absentee students.
The advantage of ticketing, Christie said, is that it is “immediate” and a concept family familiar to youth. “Tickets are something kids understand,” she said. “They know there’s a fine involved, that they may have to go to court, and you don’t go court without your parents.”
Before Whitmire’s bill became law, a number of school districts already had intervention programs in place. The Fort Worth ISD, for example, activates a detailed plan anytime a student repeatedly fails to show up, said Barry Smith, the assistant director of attendance.
One missed class triggers a call to the parents. After two or three days of a student being missing in action, he said, attendance officers visit the home. After more than three days of unexcused absences, parents are asked to meet with representatives of the school and social service agencies.
Many times educators learn that truancy relates to a crisis at home. “It may turn out a child was ill, but the parent didn’t have health insurance to take him to the doctor,” said Smith. “Or a mother was staying at a shelter for abused women and didn’t know how to get her child to school. We try to find them assistance as soon as possible.”
Social service agencies also offer assistance such as classes in parenting, self-esteem, and anger management.
To get the student back on track, administrators sign a contract with the teen and parents describing the remedial measures and stipulating the student will attend class regularly. If absences persist, the district refers the truant student to court. “When we do,” Smith said, “we can document for the court all the preventative measures that were taken but failed.”
Fort Worth ISD also created a School Attendance Court that is staffed by a municipal court judge, three caseworkers and four city marshals. The court processes about 3,000 truancy cases a year. As conditions for dismissing the misdemeanor, the judge might require counseling, verification of good behavior and daily school attendance, as well as drug testing. Often the fine is waived in exchange for community service.
Teens who fall short of the judge’s mandates may be found in contempt of court and face a weekend in jail when they reach 17. But if they make up the classes, they can avoid jail and seek to get their record cleared.
Public policy experts say Texas’ new law has highlighted the issue of truancy, and that in itself has been positive. But some of those same experts still see the treatment of truants as ineffective and a waste of resources.
“Research shows that a variety of barriers keep kids from attending school, so schools need to target those barriers,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed in Austin, a non-profit public interest law center. “It may be the family can’t afford an alarm clock so the student is late every day, or the family may want the teenager to go to work.”
Fowler cited additional research that suggests once a teenager makes one appearance in court, he is more likely to become a dropout. She explained: “It affects the way these kids think about themselves. Attorneys who handle truancy cases hear the kids grumble, ‘Guess this makes me a criminal now.’ If the student was ticketed at school, it affects the way he’ll feel about school in the future.”
Finally, in times when community resources are stretched thin, Fowler said, problem solving would prove to be much less expensive than running a court system for absent teens.
Meanwhile, Tran spent this summer working and planning her senior year of high school. From now on, she says, she’ll not only devote attention to homework but also to a new interest—time management.
Photo by Jorjanna Price.
Jorjanna Price was a reporter for The Houston Post and an editor for several state agencies in Texas. She is now a full-time freelance writer and editor in Austin.