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Complaint Targets Process Used by Truancy Court

Jun 12, 2013 by

Eight-five percent of the income of Texas justice of the peace courts make is off truancy cases.

A Dallas County court is charging truant students and their parents millions in fines, handcuffing students in their classrooms and infringing on youths’ constitutional rights, according to a complaint that advocates are filing Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice.soundslogo200

“It’s a very punitive process,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit advocacy organization that is among those filing the complaint. “We’ve been to the court, too, and heard kids threatened with arrest and jail.”

On behalf of seven Dallas-area students, Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law will ask the Justice Department to declare that the court’s process of prosecuting truancy as a crime is unconstitutional. In the complaint, the groups argue that prosecuting the youths in adult court where they don’t have lawyers is “cruel and unusual punishment.” They also allege that the four school districts — Dallas, Mesquite, Garland and Richardson — that use the specialty court have “inconsistent and inflexible” attendance policies that violate the civil rights of students with disabilities, those who are pregnant and those whose first language is not English.

Dallas County and school officials argue that the truancy program has been successful at reducing dropouts and that school administrators work hard to accommodate students with special needs. They say the program has worked so well that lawmakers have approved legislation that would make the Dallas program a model for truancy courts statewide.

Texas is one of only two states that prosecute truancy as a crime in adult courts — Wyoming is the other. Dallas County has prosecuted more truancy cases than any other county and three times as many cases as Harris County, which is home to the state’s largest school district.

“In many respects what we’re seeing in Dallas County you probably see in other places,” Fowler said. “What is unique about Dallas County is just the sheer number.”

Last year, Dallas County prosecuted more than 36,000 truancy cases, and in fiscal year 2012, it collected $2.9 million in fines. That money paid about three-quarters of the cost to run the truancy specialty court, one of only two such court systems in the state. The other is in Fort Bend County.

Two of Nicole Pryor’s four children are among the seven in the complaint against Dallas County. The single mother said the truancy court process has been expensive and stressful for her family.

Pryor said her older daughter, who has attention deficit disorder, became depressed and frustrated and began missing classes when the school stopped providing support services that had helped her to learn. Three truancy cases were filed against her, and she was ordered to appear in court.

“She was terrified. She’s asthmatic, and she went to court not knowing whether they were going to lock her up and put her in jail,” Pryor said.

The girl was convicted of “failure to attend” in all three cases and ordered to pay fines of more than $1,300. She has since enrolled in another school, from which she is preparing to graduate this month, but still must attend monthly review hearings until her fines are paid or face being jailed.

Pryor’s younger daughter, who has excelled academically, landed in the truancy court after the school inaccurately reported unexcused absences, Pryor said. Once, the girl was suspended for three days for being tardy after she arrived late to class because she was using the bathroom. Then, the school tallied her suspension days as unexcused absences. Pryor said her daughter had to miss school to spend hours in the courtroom pleading with the judge to dismiss the case.

“You don’t want them to grow up with a criminal background before they even get a chance to get a real job,” Pryor said. “It’s making the children not have any hope anymore.”

via Complaint Targets Process Used by Truancy Court | The Texas Tribune.

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