The problem with how Texas handles truancy isn’t a new one. But it’s getting some well-deserved attention. Yesterday, Buzzfeed published a strong investigative piece that explores the way truancy laws work in Texas, and the story comes at a time when discussing the problem is absolutely vital—while the Legislature is in session and considering a change to the incredibly punitive law through which Texas criminal courts prosecute teenagers for missing school.
The Buzzfeed story opens with an example that reads like a combination of Joseph Heller and Franz Kafka:
The 11th-grader in the courtroom wore braces, loved Harry Potter movies, and posted Katy Perry lyrics on Facebook. She also had a bad habit of cutting school, and now, a judge informed her, she owed $2,700 in truancy-related fines. But Serena Vela, who lived in a trailer with her unemployed mother, couldn’t afford to pay.
Serena was offered “jail credit” at a rate of $300 per day. She was patted down, touched “everywhere,” and dispatched to adult lockup, where she would stay for nine days, missing a week and a half of classes. The first school day after she was released, administrators kicked her out.
She had gone to jail because of a law intended to keep kids on the path to graduation. Instead, her high school career was over.
Serena is not alone in her experience—over a thousand Texas teens have been sentenced to time in adult jails for missing school, the site reports, for reasons that run the gamut from the occasional “decided to skip class” to the impossible “was assigned to an alternative school thirty miles from home and didn’t have a way to get there.” Buzzfeed’s report explores the link between poverty and truancy and is full of shocking anecdotes, such as students being taken out of class in handcuffs and taken to jail to serve sentences longer than a week for the crime of missing class.
It’s hard to argue that a law designed to keep kids in school by taking them out of it is working, but it’s an unintended consequence of a decision to move truancy out of the juvenile justice system and into the criminal justice system simply to deal with a backlog of cases. There are plenty of horrors to be found in the Buzzfeed story, including the conditions of some of the jails in which students are incarcerated and responses from judges who think that putting kids in jail for missing school—regardless of the reason—is a sacred responsibility.
Horrifyingly, this has been going on for a long time. Buzzfeed’s story brings attention to the issue from a national platform, and it does a great job of putting more sympathetic faces to the problem—and it’s the first report to come up with some numbers about exactly how many students throughout Texas have done time for truancy—but the problems date back many years.
Indeed, in the 2013 legislative session, a bill that would have fixed many of the problems with Texas’s truancy laws sailed through both the House and the Senate and landed on Governor Perry’s desk—where it was promptly vetoed by the then-executive. It was an unexpected veto—Senator John Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, suggested that Perry had vetoed the bill by mistake, while the Dallas Morning News reported it was inspired by concerns over tracking students between districts, certain local programs, and conflicts with other laws.
Regardless of the reason, a thousand teenagers who would have been punished in either the civil or juvenile courts had the law been changed in 2013 have spent time in jail.
The numbers of those who are actually incarcerated are dwarfed by the number of students in Texas who are charged with a crime for truancy in the state though. The Houston Chronicle reports a whopping 100,000 students face those charges each year, and many of them are younger than the age at which teens find themselves tried as adults in Texas courts.
Those students who can’t pay the fines have reason to fear that on or after their 17th birthdays, they’ll have do jail time for the amount of money they owe, Nezami said.
When Edgar Ontiveros represented himself in court at ages 15 and 16, he was so scared by the prospect of jail, he thought he had only one alternative – to take the deal offered.
At the time of his “failure to attend” charges, he was homeless and broke, he said.
He also agreed when court officials ordered him to drop out of school in South Houston, get a job and take the GED or high school equivalency exam.
“I was a good student,” said Ontiveros, who is 18 now. “All my teachers loved me. And I wanted a high school diploma. Who doesn’t?”
“The judge didn’t seem like he cared. When I tried to talk to him, he said, ‘You’re giving me excuses?’ “
Indeed, the unthinking approach to punishing students through this law is one of the hardest things about it to countenance. Adults who were truant as teenagers can be sentenced to jail long after they’ve graduated during warrant roundups. (A 2010 Montgomery County truancy warrant roundup took in 45 people, some of them adults whose truancy was years behind them.) Texas prosecutes truancy charges at rates that are more than twice that of the other 49 states combined.
Whitmire is once more championing a reform to Texas’s truancy laws. He’s not the sort of guy who’s overly sympathetic to misbehaving teens, either—as the head of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, he’s continually resisted moves to raise the age at which Texans are tried as adults to eighteen—but he’s optimistic that the 2015 session might bring some change.
The Senate approved a bill that would decriminalize truancy, which now sits in the House for review. As with many bills in the waning weeks of the legislative session, its future is hard to predict. But it’s possible that the renewed attention that Buzzfeed’s story has brought to the issue might move the needle. (Representative Harold Dutton Jr., a Democrat from Houston, responded to the numbers the site found with a “you gotta be kidding me,” Buzzfeed reported in a follow-up), and support for reform seems to be fairly broad, at least if media coverage is any indication: the Texas Observer and Breitbart Texas agree on very little, but both outlets have published critical looks at the push to change the law this session. Whether that means anything—and whether Governor Abbott would sign the bill if it landed on his desk—remains to be seen, but the renewed attention can’t hurt.