Dallas Accused of 'School to Prison' Regime

     DALLAS (CN) - Dallas County truancy courts illegally trying students as adults, violate their privacy and right to counsel, resulting in "almost guaranteed" criminal convictions, seven students claim in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice.
     Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law and Disability Rights Texas filed a complaint on the students' behalf Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.
     The groups say Dallas County formed its special truancy courts in 2003 to handle Class C misdemeanor cases for students as young as 12.
     Four school districts feed into the courts - the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson Independent School Districts.
     "Dallas County truancy courts are violating students' constitutional rights by prosecuting truancy - a status offense that may only be committed by a child - as a crime," the complaint states.
     "The complaint alleges that Dallas County truancy courts are violating students' constitutional rights by: issuing warrants to arrest students at school, handcuff, and transport them to truancy courts; prosecuting youth on truancy misdemeanor charges with no appointed counsel (even for indigent students) and no accommodation determination for disabilities; inappropriately restraining some students in handcuffs in court as a blanket rule that fails to determine, on an individual case basis, whether students pose a flight or safety risk; and inadequately advising students of their legal rights and the consequences of guilty plea, which results in students' waiving their legal rights when it is not in their best interest."
     Under the Dallas County system, schools must file truancy charges if a student misses 10 or more unexcused days within 6 months, but schools may exercise discretion if a student misses three or more unexcused days within four weeks.
     The students claim the truancy courts routinely refuse to hear evidence of errors in attendance records or allow medical excuses for absence.
     "Instead, judges instruct students and parents to convince the school to change the attendance records, which schools may refuse to do," the complaint states. "The schools often claim a parent or doctor's note was submitted too late, or that the parent failed to notify the proper school personnel about a medical condition or meet with the attendance officer in person as required by school policy."
     The students claim the defendant school districts use "inconsistent and inflexible" attendance policies that fail to take into account how disabilities affect students from being tardy, violating Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.
     They claim the districts failed to provide school or classroom attendance policies in languages other than English, in violation of the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974.
     They ask federal prosecutors to declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy a violation of the Eighth Amendment.
     Texas is one of only two states that prosecute truancy as a crime in adult courts, the plaintiffs say.
     "In FY 2012, Texas adult courts (municipal, justice of the peace, and the Dallas truancy courts) prosecuted about 113,000 truancy cases - or more than double the number pursued in all other states combined," the complaint states. "Dallas County operates the largest truancy court system in Texas. In FY 2012 it prosecuted over 36,000 truancy cases - more than any other Texas county and nearly three times more than Harris County, home of the state's largest school district (Houston ISD)."
     This is the latest in a string of lawsuits across Southern states that accuse schools of instituting "school to prison" regimes. All of the previous complaints claim the policies are directed at poor and minority students.
     Texas Appleseed is based in Austin; the National Center for Youth Law in Oakland, Calif.; Disability Rights Texas in Houston. All have assigned the case to staff attorneys.