The Truancy Trap

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Courts are hitting students with harsh penalties and collecting millions of dollars in fines. But are they addressing the real problems?

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The judge peered down at Ashley Derrick from the bench and scolded her for being late to a 9 a.m. hearing in his Garland, Texas, courtroom. Derrick, 26, explained that she'd hit traffic coming from one of her two jobs as a phlebotomist. Her alleged crime: contributing to her child's non-attendance at school, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and community service for each unexcused absence.

"Your son has six lates to school and two leaving early," Judge John Sholden declared. "How do you plead?

"Not guilty," answered Derrick. The judge set a pretrial hearing for June 27.

Outside the courtroom, Derrick, who was dressed in brightly printed scrubs, looked weary but resigned. Her son Marcus, 7, had indeed missed class time but it was for medical appointments. "My son has chronic asthma and also ADHD," she said, "and he panics a little when he has breathing problems. So we have him seeing a counselor." Marcus' doctor had been tardy herself in providing mandatory excuse notes to his school, prompting the principal to file a truancy case in the Texas court. "There's no flexibility," Derrick said. "But I know I will have the doctor's notes, so I pled not guilty."

The harried African American single mom was among the hundreds of parents and students who attended truancy court on that single May day in Dallas County. Unlike Derrick, most pled guilty or no contest and were given a fine of at least $195, due in 30 days. Students risked losing their drivers licenses, too, and those who failed to appear in court for one reason or another risked arrest warrants.

Dallas-area school districts are not uniquely harsh on suspected truants. Around the country, school administrators, elected officials, and prosecutors are tackling the truancy problem through the criminal justice system, ratcheting up enforcement, slapping students and parents with big-dollar fines, and threatening jail time. Atlanta, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Virginia sharpened their truancy policies this year with the aim of increasing prosecutions. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Compton, the police sweep the streets for truants and enforce daytime curfew laws.

Supporters say the truancy crackdown is critical to improving test scores and high school graduation rates, but there's a fiscal motivation, too. With school budgets cut to the bone, every dollar counts, and each absent child represents lost state funding. Some districts get a share of fines levied by the courts, providing an additional incentive for issuing tickets. While a recent study from the non-profit Get Schooled found that truancy cuts across all demographics, those most affected by harsh enforcement are low-income families whose financial struggles can contribute to attendance problems, and students like Marcus Derrick with health problems or learning disabilities, who may require costly educational interventions that school districts want to avoid by punting the problem off to the courts.

The absurdities of harsh truancy policies made headlines in May when a Houston-area judge jailed Diane Tran, 17, for missing too much school and fined her $100. News reports revealed that Tran was an 11th grade honor student working two jobs to support siblings after her parents divorced and moved out of state. Tran's treatment attracted the public's attention, but thousands of students and their parents are regularly churned through similar courts without public scrutiny of the process, its costs, or its effectiveness.

For their part, education experts welcome the focus on attendance but say fines and threats of jail are the wrong approach for all but exceptional cases. "We're paying more attention because education is more necessary than ever before," said Joanna Heilbrunn, senior research and policy analyst at the National Center for School Engagement. "But there is always a reason a kid is not in school, and just fining the family doesn't do anything. Most families are low income and the barriers stem from income issues."

That's true in Atlanta, where families are still swamped by unemployment and foreclosures from the busted housing market, says Jessica Pennington, executive director of the nonprofit Truancy Intervention Project. "Since the economic downturn, the state budget is shrinking and schools are dealing with the same problems and lot less resources," she said. "In the past two years, we're seeing families we wouldn't have seen before. Construction workers who haven't worked in two years. Lots of middle-class families who lost their houses and moved to apartments. The stress level in the home is high, kids are acting out, and parents are struggling with sustenance issues. Kids missing school is not such a priority. They are dealing with keeping the lights on."

There are no accurate nationwide data on truancy in part because states employ different definitions. California considers a child truant after three incidents of either unexcused absence or being late 30 minutes or more. Chronic truancy is missing 10 percent of class--or 18 days--during the school year. Texas defines truancy as missing three full or partial days in a four-week period, or 10 days in six months.

But may education advocates say districts should be looking into the deeper reasons for chronic student absences. "If what matters is attendance, it matters how many days you miss for whatever reason," said Robert Balfanz, of the Center for the Social Organization of Schools at Johns Hopkins. Balfanz co-authored a May 2012 study that estimates chronic absenteeism at 10 percent to 15 percent among U.S. public school students, with highest levels among poor students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds. "Chronic absenteeism... is how poverty manifests itself on school achievement," Balfanz said. "It isn't an argument for making truancy criminal."

The Truancy Fine Factories

Tyler M., 16, and his mother stepped up to Judge Sholden's bench in the Garland, Texas truancy court that same May morning. Sholden read the charge: 12 unexcused absences, a first offense. The teen pled guilty and the judge hit him with a $195 fine. Stung by sticker shock, Tyler asked, "Why do I have to pay a fine?"

"It costs $450,000 to run this courtroom. Who's going to pay for it?" an annoyed Sholden said. "Do you think the taxpayers of Garland should pay for it?"

The economics of truancy enforcement are boldly on display in Texas' courts. From 2005 to 2009, truancy cases filed by public schools in the Lone Star state grew annually, from 85,000 to 120,000. Truancy courts are the traffic courts of public education, processing hundreds of parents and students daily in assembly-line fashion--even during summer months. The Dallas courts alone handle an average of 35,000 cases a year, and their revenue is eye-popping: just over $2 million in FY 2009 and nearly $1.8 million in FY 2011. Truancy court was founded in 2003 because the problem of unexcused absences was overwhelming the juvenile court system; now Dallas has five truancy courts, each with its own judge and staff. "They've developed a whole system in Dallas that has to feed itself to justify its existence," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal advocacy group Texas Appleseed.

As in other states, truancy prosecutions seem motivated at least in part by the loss of state education dollars from student absenteeism. (Public schools receive funding based on their daily census, which is why attendance is taken every morning.) "In Texas, $4 billion has been cut from the education budget," Fowler says. "When they start looking at where they're losing money, truancy and low attendance are an obvious place. It's a way to increase funding."

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Annette Fuentes is an investigative journalist and the author of Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse Becomes a Jailhouse.

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