(CN) – With the Department of Justice investigating whether Texas schools deny students due process in a “school-to-prison pipeline,” Texas on Friday repealed a law criminalizing truancy.
House Bill 2398 changed truancy from a Class C misdemeanor to a civil matter to be handled in truancy court, if a student misses 10 days of class in a six-month period.
Previously, students who habitually skipped class faced fines of up to $500, court costs and a criminal record in courts designed for low-level adult offenses.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed the law Friday.
“The purpose of this chapter is to encourage school attendance by creating simple civil judicial procedures through which children are held accountable for excessive school absences,” HB 2398 states. “The best interest of the child is the primary consideration in adjudicating truant conduct of the child.”
Texas Appleseed called the law an “historic” end to a “harmful policy of criminalizing children” for truancy. The nonprofit watchdog, along with Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law, asked federal prosecutors to investigate Dallas County in 2012 on behalf of seven students in the Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson school districts.
They alleged violations of the Constitution , the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Dallas County alone prosecuted 20,000 truancy cases in 2014. Federal prosecutors launched their investigation three months ago and county officials have said they will cooperate.
“This new law will impact hundreds of thousands of Texas families, and Texas Appleseed is so proud to have been part of the large and diverse movement of families and advocacy groups dedicated to addressing truancy this legislative session,” Texas Appleseed said Friday.
“The new law requires school districts to take meaningful steps to address the underlying issues that can cause truancy, thereby helping children stay in school and succeed. If a child’s truancy problems persist, the law still allows for schools to refer that student to court, but the court process will be civil rather than criminal. A civil court process means that students will not be saddled with the fines and criminal records that have harmed so many families.”
In their 2012 complaint, the watchdogs said Texas “ensnared” children in a “Byzantine legal process,” subjecting them to arrest, handcuffing and jail.
“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 stated. “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 claimed.
“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 such student was referred to truancy court for using the restroom and being late to class.
Three others 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.
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