DALLAS (CN) - The Department of Justice is investigating whether Dallas County's truancy and juvenile district courts are giving due process to thousands of children, or putting them into a "school-to-prison pipeline."
The department's Civil Rights Division wants to know if due process is afforded to children charged with failure to attend school and county charges of contempt.
Dallas County prosecuted approximately 20,000 failure to attend school cases last year.
In Texas, justice of the peace and municipal courts have original jurisdiction over the Class C misdemeanors.
"The Constitution's guarantee of due process applies to every individual, regardless of age or disability," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement Tuesday.
"This investigation continues the Justice Department's focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances."
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said the county will cooperate.
"We remain committed to giving every student their best chance at staying in school and graduating," Jenkins said in a statement. "My office is working collaboratively with reformers to improve the state laws that control the system, provide new protections for disabled students, make expunction of truancy records automatic, and lower fines and penalties."
The investigation comes two years after watchdog groups Disability Rights Texas, Texas Appleseed and the National Center for Youth Law asked federal prosecutors to intervene in what they called a "harmful aspect" of the " school-to-prison pipeline " in Texas.
Advocating on behalf of seven students in the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson school districts, the groups alleged violations of the Constitution, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
"Prosecuting children through courts designed for adult low-level offenses has produced a host of harms to children and families," the groups' 59-page complaint stated. "Students as young as 12 years old are subjected to an adult criminal court process despite being charged with a status offense, a 'crime' only by virtue of the fact that it was committed by a child. Lacking access to an attorney, these children are almost guaranteed a criminal conviction and all the attendant consequences that follow."
Children "ensnared" in the "Byzantine legal process" are subject to arrest, handcuffing and threats of jail and detention, the groups said.
"The harms of the system extend to students' families, who get caught in a cycle of workdays missed due to court hearings and debt flowing from fines, costs, and fees," the complaint states. "At no time during the Dallas County truancy court process - an adversarial process that includes restraints of students' liberty and at times, incarceration - does the court provide counsel for the children. In the Dallas County truancy courts, cases are 'e-filed' by schools with students' attendance records triggering a system that electronically 'pushes' cases to the courts once they have reached the designated filing date - leaving probable cause determinations to a computer."
Students are routinely threatened with jail though they are not old enough for such punishment under Texas law, the complaint alleged.
"Children are routinely criminalized for behavior as innocuous as being tardy to class," the complaint stated. "Students - even those with disabilities - are required to represent themselves with no access to an attorney or advocate, and the court does not allow their parents to help them. Youth are coerced and cajoled into pleading 'guilty,' even when they have valid excuses for school absences."
One of the students allegedly was referred to truancy court for using the restroom and being late to class.
Three others allegedly were referred due to illness, one for caring for an ill mother, one was absent for the school's failure to provide special education services and one was referred due to the school's erroneously counting suspension days as unexcused absences.
Federal prosecutors have conducted similar investigations elsewhere and imposed reforms in 2012 after investigations in the Juvenile Court of Memphis and Shelby County, Tennessee.
Texas Appleseed staff attorney Morgan Craven said the group is "very pleased" by the investigation and hopes it will "spur much-needed change' in the way truancy is handled by Texas.
"Thousands of children and parents have been funneled through these courts without access to attorneys and in violation of some of their basic constitutional rights," Craven said in a statement Thursday. "While this criminal court process is harmful to all children, children with disabilities and students and families with limited English proficiency face even greater difficulties."
Dallas is only one of two counties in Texas with special truancy courts that hear failure to attend school and parent contributing to nonattendance cases - Fort Bend County is the other.
"The Dallas courts prosecute the highest number of children in the state for FTAS, despite the fact that Dallas County does not have the largest student population (Harris County does)," Craven said. "So, while we certainly believe that the criminalization of children for truancy is ineffective and harmful everywhere, we have found that it is particularly rampant in the Dallas area and is facilitated by the Dallas truancy court system."
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