WASHINGTON - A decision this week by a major Texas school district to suspend operations at its truancy court was welcomed by juvenile justice advocates, who have long pushed for an end the state's controversial policy of criminalizing students for having too many unexcused absences.
"It's terrific to see [a district] take such a proactive stance," Deborah Fowler, executive director of justice reform advocacy group Texas Appleseed, told The Huffington Post. "We're impressed by their decision to really investigate the system, and to take seriously the disparate impact that truancy courts have on poor and minority students."
Charles Dupre, superintendent of the Fort Bend Independent School District, which encompasses suburbs west of Houston and has over 70,000 students enrolled, sent a letter to parents Monday night advising of the change. "After listening to a variety of community voices around this important issue, we have determined we must perform a complete review of the District's truancy procedures," Dupre wrote. "Therefore, we are immediately suspending our existing truancy procedures, including referring students to truancy court, while this review is conducted."
The decision to suspend the truancy court was the result of a confluence of events, including a major report published by Texas Appleseed in March. The report revealed that the state of Texas prosecutes more than twice as many truancy cases annually as all other states combined, and it raised serious questions about whether the children referred to truancy court were being afforded due process.
State Senator Rodney Ellis wrote a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, also in March, urging the Justice Department to investigate racial disparities in how truancy laws were applied in Texas. Ellis, who represents Fort Bend, singled out the school district for criticism, noting that "in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprise 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment."
Fort Bend ISD is also undergoing a separate review by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, to determine whether the district "discriminates against African-American students by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than other similarly situated students."
Earlier this month, the Department of Justice announced that it would launch an investigation into truancy courts in another district, in Dallas County, focusing specifically on issues of due process for juveniles.
Although truancy is considered a crime under state law, it's up to the school districts how to prosecute students. As a result, many Texas schools end up sending those charged with truancy through the criminal justice system rather than having their own administrations discipline the students.
Given that truancy is considered a misdemeanor under Texas law, the state does not provide access to legal counsel for those charged with the crime. As a result, the overwhelming majority of defendants either plead guilty or no contest in court. Fines for truancy can cost up to $500 per misdemeanor.
Dupre's letter, which was forwarded to HuffPost, acknowledged the increased scrutiny that Texas truancy policies have come under. "With the recent expressed concerns about the way FBISD handles truancy matters, we believe it will be in the best interest of our students and the community for us to re-examine aspects of the system that might need to be improved," he wrote.
Among those aspects, Fowler pointed out, is the fact that Fort Bend has a special truancy court system that operates as a criminal court, not a juvenile one. "There's a mismatch here between the fact that they have created a court where only a child would be charged, by definition, and yet they've set it up as an adult criminal court, and not a juvenile court," she said. "That's what needs to be corrected."
The Texas State Legislature is currently considering a number of bills that would decriminalize truancy statewide, forcing school systems to deal with truancy through means other than the state's criminal courts. Fowler said she's optimistic.
"There's still a great deal of support for this across the state," she said. "And we expect the bill will pass during this session of the legislature."
The legislative session ends June 1.