Target: U.S. Department of Justice
Goal: Reform truancy laws in Texas
In Texas, students who miss more than ten days of school within a six-month period or are tardy must pay more than $1,000 in fines and can even go to jail. They are taken from school in handcuffs and held in custody for days at a time. Children do not have legal representation unless their parents can afford it and even if they prevail in court they have to foot the bill, which discourages people from exercising their right to a full hearing. A coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice against several school districts in Texas. Tell the Department of Justice to protect children from jail for missing or being late to school.
The complaint targets school districts in Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson. In part, it asks the Justice Department to force reforms and “declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy” a violation of their constitutional rights. Truancy cases in Texas have dramatically increased in volume. Dallas County truancy court collected nearly $3 million in penalties, 67 students age 17 and older went to jail, and 53 students younger than 17 went to juvenile detention centers. Adult courts in Texas in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases.
The complaint asserts that the truancy program unfairly targets minorities and low-income students. Jailing children is a routine practice. The irony is that some school officials, judges and lawmakers claim that truancy laws make it possible for students to go back to school and graduate. In a statement provided by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins stated, “The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate”, adding that attorneys that are employed by the court are experts in juvenile justice issues. It is obvious, though, that if kids are in jail, they miss school.
In an effort to combat truancy, Texas lawmakers have passed laws to make “failure to attend school” a Class C misdemeanor, meaning that children can be tried as adults. Laws require schools to report students to truancy court if a student has ten or more unexcused absences within a six-month period. If they do not appear in court or pay their fines on time (from $80 to $500), they risk additional fees and jail time. Dallas County is even worse, having successfully lobbied state legislature to allow it to create its own specialized court system that would handle only truancy cases. Four public school districts agreed to send their truant cases to the specialized courts.
This system is somewhat like killing a fly with a hammer. No one argues that missing or being late to school is a good thing, but if children learn from such a delicate age that they can be cruelly punished for something they may have no control over, they will lose faith in adults who are supposed to protect them. This country’s obsession with imprisoning children has to end. Please sign below to urge the U.S. Department of Justice to review the practice of fines and jail time for children who are late to school or if they miss school. This pipeline from schools to prisons has got to stop.
Dear Mr. Holder,
In the old days, if a student was tardy or had an unexcused absence, he or she would be punished by detention and writing of lines on the chalkboard. The situation is radically different in the present. Texas punishes these “crimes” with fines and even jail time. The school to prison pipeline is targeting minority and low-income students.
For being absent from school without an excuse for ten days or more, a student can be charged a fine of more than $1,000. If the fine is not paid on time, the child will be sent to jail. Students are taken from school in handcuffs and imprisoned for days at a time. In court, they are not provided legal representation unless parents can afford to hire a lawyer. Defendants have to cover court fees even if they prevail, which discourages people from exercising their right to a full hearing.
Texas adult courts in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases. Dallas County truancy court alone collected nearly $3 million in fines, sent 67 students age 17 and older to jail, and 53 students younger than 17 to juvenile detention centers. Some government and school officials and judges spoke in favor of such extreme tactics, pointing out that attorneys specially trained in juvenile justice issues help solve the problem of truancy in schools. Unfortunately, it has not worked. On the larger scale, students’ constitutional rights are violated, and their faith in adults who are supposed to protect them deteriorates.
Please review the complaint recently filed with the U.S. Department of Justice by a coalition of advocacy groups for young people and the disabled, targeting the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson school districts in Texas. You have the power to turn this around and force reform in the state. The future of innocent children lies in your hands.
[Your Name Here]
Photo credit: Filippo Cerulo via Flickr