Activists File Complaint with Feds, Say Dallas County Truancy Courts Violate Students' Rights

The punishment for truancy used to be so much simpler.
Dallas County established its truancy courts a decade ago with the hope that a specialized judicial system would better address the root causes of chronic absenteeism (mental health problems, family issues, etc.) than school discipline or adult courts. County Judge Clay Jenkins has declared the program a success, saying they process cases more quickly and are key in "getting kids back on the right track."

But not everyone thinks the county's truancy courts are so swell. Three advocacy groups -- Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law, and Disability Rights Texas -- filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department today alleging that Dallas County and partnering school districts (Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson ISD) have violated the civil rights of the 36,000 kids who have passed through.

Their main beef is that the truancy courts amount to a criminal justice system -- the students who wind up there are charged with Class C misdemeanors for missing 10 or more days of school -- that robs defendants of privacy protections and the right to counsel provided in juvenile civil courts.

"With no access to an attorney and little understanding of their rights and remedies, Dallas County students are almost guaranteed a criminal conviction," the groups write in their complaint.

They filed the complaint on behalf of seven students caught up in the truancy court system. Their cases, the complaint says, shows the inflexibility and unfairness of the system.

One girl was charged for missing a month of school after delivering her baby. Another student was the primary caretaker of her chronically ill mother and had to miss class when her condition worsened. Another was dragged to court because, due to an administrative error, her class schedule didn't match the school's attendance record. Another was kept home for several stretches because of chronic asthma.

Jenkins and district officials quibble with some of the details, which they say are exaggerated. Contrary to the claim the advocacy groups make in their complaint, students are not handcuffed for truancy violations; they're restrained only when they pose a threat to others, they told The Dallas Morning News. Jenkins said the organizations spent days at the truancy courts "harassing" families in hopes of building a case.

Texas Appleseed and the rest stand by these claims and say that the system should be ended. But their aim is larger than the abolition of truancy courts. They want the DOJ to "declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy" -- a practice exclusive to Texas and Wyoming -- "to be a violation of their Eighth Amendment constitutional rights."

Instead, they argue that school districts should work to establish "a system of school and community-based programs" to intervene and avoid the judicial system altogether.

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Had a similar run in with the truancy courts this past year.  My oldest, who has aspergers, was scheduled for 2 fourth period classes.  As a singular being he was only able to attend on of those classes, and therefore opted to skip the class labeled "Placeholder".  When we received the robo-calls from DISD, we called the counselor who stated she would fix it.  Of course being DISD, that was not the case, it went back and forth until she stopped returning our emails and we received a summons from the Truancy Court.

At the court, anyone over 16 cannot be accompanied by their parent.  As my son has aspergers, and has a ARD from the DISD, State Law prohibits any disciplinary hearing without me or my ex-wife.  The court tried to circumvent that however, but I had a copy of his ARD and the applicable sections of the Texas Code (including penalties) printed out.  Now the fear had shifted to their side and were gathered around each other asking trying to figure out what to do.  Long story short - the case was dismissed before the judge even entered the room.  I was a little pissed since I had taken the day off of work - I was looking forward to making DISD look stupid on the court record.

They tried hard to separate my son from me.  For good measure, I wrote my son a note to read if they tried to question him directly.  Kids with spectrum disorders will say anything you want to get out of an uncomfortable situation.  He was scared to death, the only way I was able to calm him down was to tell him if they tried to pull him away and ask him to many questions, that the court would be getting him a new PC.

Upon leaving, I was a little shocked at how children who parents did not know their rights and could do nothing but watch their kids be railroaded.  Several parents asked for my help assuming that I was an attorney - since I was the only person in the room in a suit. 

ThePosterFormerlyKnownasPaul topcommenter

If the deprivation of rights was that severe and significant, it would seem to me that action would have been taken by these groups prior to some 36,000 children having been subjected to this process.  For example, the first child subjected to this process ...


I would lower the mandatory attendance age to 16.  Most of the kids in truancy court don't want to be in school.  My youngest was in truancy court twice, I was able to get the charges dismissed both times.

everlastingphelps topcommenter

It's all about money.  

1) Levy heavy fines on poor people who can't afford to fight them, and who are generally invisible to the establishment media.

2) Collect ten million dollars. (No shit.  It's on-track to collect $10,000,000 this year.)

Two words: Home.  School.  Sending your kid to a government school at this point is damn near child abuse.  If the goal was to get poor brown and black kids, and get them into the System early, then it's doing a marvelous job.  I mean, nothing says "don't drop out" more than "if you just come some of the time we will cripple your family with crushing debt."


I have to say that, if the kids are being taken to court, they need the opportunity for legal representation. If they are not even given the opportunity for legal representation, then their rights are being violated. If you even get a speeding ticket you can hire legal representation, if you want it.

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