Complaint says truancy system in Dallas County, Texas, violates students' rights

Truancy courts in Dallas County, Texas, are violating students' rights as they aggressively pursue criminal cases against thousands of children--some as young as 12-- who have missed school, according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Justice Department.

Three groups advocating for student rights--the National Center for Youth Law, Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas--have filed the complaint with the Educational Opportunies Section of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. It alleges that the truancy courts in Dallas County subject children "to a byzantine legal process resulting in increasingly punitive measures, including arrest, handcuffing and threats of jail time and detention," the complaint contends. The truancy court's "convoluted process ...is seemingly structured in an attempt to circumvent the constitutional protections guaranteed to children...Without sufficiently understanding their legal rights or the court proceedings, children defendants are almost always incapable of protecting their rights and defending themselves against the (truancy) charges."

In addition, inconsistent and unclear attendance policies among the school districts that feed students into the truancy court system make the system more difficult for children and their families to navigate. Students affected attend schools in the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson districts.

For instance, broad school district attendance policies may be spelled out in a student handbook or code of conduct, but specific policies vary radically from school to school. In some schools, those policies vary from classroom to classroom.

The situation in Dallas County is unique, the lawyers say. Texas is one of only two states (Wyoming is the other) that treat truancy as a crime dealt with in adult courts. In fiscal 2012, Texas courts prosecuted about 113,000 truancy cases. More than 36,000 of those were in Dallas County, which has the state's largest truancy court system. (By comparison, Harris County, which includes Houston and has more children than Dallas County, had only about 12,700 truancy cases in its courts.

Among the alleged violations cited by lawyers:

  • Children routinely face criminal charges for behavior "as innocuous as being tardy to class."
  • Students--even those with disabilities--must represent themselves with no access to an attorney or an advocate. "The court does not allow their parents to help them," the complaint says.
  • Youth "are coerced and cajoled" into pleading guilty, even when they have valid excuses for absences.
  • Families already facing economic hardship are assessed steep fines and court costs, and more fees are added every month they are unable to pay in full.
  • Children who miss a court hearing are arrested at school, put into a police car, brought into a courtroom in handcuffs and charged an additional $50 arrest warrant fee.
  • Youth who don't fully comply with truancy court orders are arrested and transferred without due process to the "Truancy Enforcement Center," part of the county's juvenile system, where the students may face detention.

The lawyers argue that the truancy process amounts to cruel and unusual punishment as defined in the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

"To punish children for missing school or being late to class with criminal prosecutions and convictions in adult court is grossly disproportionate to the offending behavior and the children who engage in it," the complaint asserts.

The complaint asks the Justice Department to declare "that the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy categorically violates the federal rights of students."

It seeks federal intervention to require Dallas County to recognize students' rights by providing a system of appointed legal representation in truancy cases; end the practice of school-based arrests for truancy; stop handcuffing students who have been accused of truancy; and train court personnel to be more knowledgeable about children's issues, developmental disabilities and special-education requirements.

It also wants the Justice Department to require that the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson districts

  • Develop truancy policies and procedures in which court referral is a last resort, "to be used only when school and community-based interventions have failed."
  • Make all district, school and classroom attendance polices and procedures accessible to students and parents who have limited English proficiency.
  • Make reasonable accommodations so that the districts do not discriminate against students with disabilities. "This includes modifying attendance policies to ensure that disability-related absences are properly excused and to not lead to court referral," the complaint says.
  • Rewrite attendance policies with more flexibility regarding truancy, "including taking into account reasonable explanation of why the student was late."
  • Examine the causes for racial and ethnic disparities in the referral of truancy cases with a goal of reducing the disparities.
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