A long-standing Texas law that has sent about 100,000 students a year to criminal court — and some to jail — for missing school is off the books, though a Justice Department investigation into one county's truancy courts continues.
Gov. Greg Abbott has signed into law a measure to decriminalize unexcused absences and require school districts to implement preventive measures. It will take effect Sept. 1.
Reform advocates say the threat of a heavy fine — up to $500 plus court costs — and a criminal record wasn't keeping children in school and was sending those who couldn't pay into a criminal justice system spiral. Under the old law, students as young as 12 could be ordered to court for three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools were required to file a misdemeanor failure to attend school charge against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. And unpaid fines landed some students behind bars when they turned 17.
"Most of the truancy issues involve hardships," state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said. "To criminalize the hardships just doesn't solve anything. It costs largely low-income families. It doesn't address the root causes."
Only two states in the U.S. — Texas and Wyoming — send truants to adult criminal court. In 2013, Texas prosecuted about 115,000 cases, more than twice the number of truancy cases filed in juvenile courts of all other states, according to a report from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed. An estimated $10 million was collected from court costs and fines from students for truancy in fiscal year 2014 alone, the Texas Office of Court Administration said.
Texas Appleseed says the policies disproportionately affected low-income, Hispanic, black and disabled students. The group was also among several groups that filed a U.S. Justice Department complaint about Dallas County's specialty truancy courts, which in 2012 prosecuted over 36,000 cases, more than any other Texas county. The Justice Department in March began looking into whether students had received due process, something spokeswoman Dena Iverson said will continue as the department evaluates the new legislation's impact.
In 12 of the state's largest 15 counties, Texas Appleseed told The Associated Press, at least 1,283 teenagers were jailed for failure to attend school from January 2013 through April 2015. At least 910 of them spent at least one night in jail.
Peyton Walker's absences began piling up in seventh grade as she suffered from depression, anxiety and migraines, she said. After missing a court date in Dallas County truancy court at the age of 12, she said she was arrested and handcuffed at school in the Dallas suburb of Mesquite. Walker said the legal situation just made things worse.
"It was more: No matter if I go (to school) or not, I'm going to go to court anyway," said now 18-year-old Walker, who graduated from high school this spring. She and her mother, who is on disability, still have $2,000 in pending fines, and Walker won't be able to get a driver's license until they are paid.
All past truancy convictions will be expunged under the new law. But what will happen to students' pending fines will be up to the courts to decide, said David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Judicial Council.
Districts will still have the option of sending students with 10 unexcused absences over six months to court, but it will be civil court, with treatment and community service among the sentencing options.
"I feel like they need to find what is really going on before they send these students to court," said Natasha Holloway, who has six children and spent a night in jail for failure to pay fines related to their absences.
Her 16-year-old daughter Natod'ja Washington had about 20 unexcused absences — which she blamed on lacking a doctor's note and school activities, among other things — when she was summoned to a Dallas County truancy court this spring. Holloway, a hair stylist, didn't have an attorney and Googled advice on how her daughter should plead. Washington pleaded no contest and was fined $180, which her mother paid.
Students' fines for not completing their sentence will not exceed $100 under the new law. And though parents can still be charged with a misdemeanor under the new law, the fines are now graduated, with $100 for the first offense instead of up to $500.
"Anything is better than what it was," said Rose Comeaux, a single mother of four in the Houston area who has fines totaling about $2,600 for her children's absences for reasons such as being tardy between classes, missing school during and after pregnancy and missing the bus.
Comeaux, who earns $9 an hour working for a cable company, said she has lost out on better jobs because arrest warrants were issued for her failure to pay. Her 16-year-old daughter, Taqayisha, was fined $395 this spring for missing school after staying home with her 2-year-old when daycare fell through.
"I know some teenagers skip school," Comeaux said, "but some teenagers have good excuses to why they can't attend school."