Class Fights Fort Bend, Texas Truancy Policy

     RICHMOND, Texas (CN) – The Fort Bend County Independent School District unlawfully sends its frequently absent students to criminal court, a class action claims.
     Calling it a “mischievous intermingling of two governmental entities,” the May 6 complaint accuses Fort Bend’s school district of operating an automated program to mass-produce citations that summon over 4,000 students annually to appear before the county truancy court.
     There, the students face class-C misdemeanor charges and before “a magistrate called a judge” and an “unlawful and biased tribunal,” lead plaintiff Verakisha Roach claims.
     “As this (complaint) will show, everything involved allowed for this intertwined and reckless system to operate to incriminate our young people in a manner completely outside the bounds of Texas law, ushering in violations of the Texas and United States Constitution,” the complaint states.
     Roach’s suit, filed on behalf of her minor son, comes just over a week after the school district suspended its program amid public scrutiny and calls for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate area truancy laws.
     The department has already opened an investigation of Dallas County’s truancy court, upon which the Fort Bend court is based.
     Fort Bend ISD allows up to 10 unexcused absences in a six-month period, and state law allows the district broad discretion in what it considers an excused or unexcused absence, which it tracks with an automated system, the complaint states.
     If a student or parent refuses to or cannot take part in the district’s truancy diversion program, the district allegedly prints and mails the student a citation.
     Roach says the citations, summoning students to Fort Bend Truancy Court for “failure to attend school,” all bear a “mass produced, electronic” signature from Fort Bend ISD’s police officer, Rafael Rincon.
     One of three “attendance specialists” allegedly attaches a notary stamp and mails the citation through regular U.S. mail.
     The district makes little effort to investigate habitual absences, the complaint alleges, in part because the attendance departments at many of the district’s schools are greatly understaffed.
     Even when the district has investigated and discovered unique situations that explain a student’s frequent absences, the district has sometimes chosen to send the student to court anyway, Roach says.
     “Many times, even with knowledge of these unique situations, Fort Bend ISD has simply thrown many of these students into the adult criminal justice system without the benefit of legal counsel under the guise of the stated ‘we must follow the law’ mantra and even with a complete recognition that a student’s involuntary absence situation just ‘breaks their hearts,'” the complaint states.
     Fort Bend’s district produced a “mind-boggling” number of truancy filings during its peak, according to the complaint, which tallies that number at approximately 8,500 for the 2008-09 school year.
     The cases overwhelmed the docket of Fort Bend’s county justice of the peace for Precinct 3, which has original jurisdiction over truancy cases, the complaint says.
     Using Dallas County’s truancy court as a model, Fort Bend ISD established its own court and immediately treated the court as an independent criminal court even though it is only allowed magistrate activities, Roach says. She adds that students appearing in Fort Bend Truancy Court are not referred to the justice court unless they plead not guilty.
     The class alleges that the county, its school district and its truancy court staffers lack authority to issue citations or levy criminal charges against minors.
     It is represented by Deron Harrington of Missouri City, Texas.

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