Should kids go to jail for skipping school?

The judge peered down at Ashley Derrick from the bench and scolded her for being late to a 9 a.m. hearing in his Garland, Texas, courtroom. Derrick, 26, explained that she’d hit traffic coming from one of her two jobs as a phlebotomist. Her alleged crime: contributing to her child’s non-attendance at school, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and community service for each unexcused absence.

“Your son has six lates to school and two leaving early,” Judge John Sholden declared. “How do you plead?”

“Not guilty,” answered Derrick. The judge set a pretrial hearing for June 27.

Outside the courtroom, Derrick, who was dressed in brightly printed scrubs, looked weary but resigned. Her son Marcus, 7, had indeed missed class time but it was for medical appointments. “My son has chronic asthma and also ADHD,” she said, “and he panics a little when he has breathing problems. So we have him seeing a counselor.” Marcus’ doctor had been tardy herself in providing mandatory excuse notes to his school, prompting the principal to file a truancy case in the Texas court. “There’s no flexibility,” Derrick said. “But I know I will have the doctor’s notes, so I pled not guilty.”

The harried African-American single mom was among the hundreds of parents and students who attended truancy court on that single day in May in Dallas County. Unlike Derrick, most pled guilty or no contest and were given a fine of at least $195, due in 30 days. Students risked losing their drivers licenses, too, and those who failed to appear in court for one reason or another risked arrest warrants.

Dallas-area school districts are not uniquely harsh on suspected truants. Around the country, school administrators, elected officials, and prosecutors are tackling the truancy problem through the criminal justice system, ratcheting up enforcement, slapping students and parents with big-dollar fines, and threatening jail time. Atlanta, Georgia, and Lynchburg, Virginia sharpened their truancy policies this year with the aim of increasing prosecutions. In Detroit, Los Angeles, and Compton, the police sweep the streets for truants and enforce daytime curfew laws.

Supporters say the truancy crackdown is critical to improving test scores and high school graduation rates, but there’s a fiscal motivation, too. With school budgets cut to the bone, every dollar counts, and each absent child represents lost state funding. Some districts get a share of fines levied by the courts, providing an additional incentive for issuing tickets.

While a recent study from the non-profit Get Schooled found that truancy cuts across all demographics, those most affected by harsh enforcement are low-income families whose financial struggles can contribute to attendance problems, and students like Marcus Derrick with health problems or learning disabilities, who may require costly educational interventions that school districts want to avoid by punting the problem off to the courts.

The root of the problem

The absurdities of harsh truancy policies made headlines in May when a Houston-area judge jailed Diane Tran, 17, for missing too much school and fined her $100. News reports revealed that Tran was an 11th grade honor student working two jobs to support siblings after her parents divorced and moved out of state. Tran’s treatment attracted the public’s attention, but thousands of students and their parents are regularly churned through similar courts without public scrutiny of the process, its costs, or its effectiveness.

For their part, education experts welcome the focus on attendance but say fines and threats of jail are the wrong approach for all but exceptional cases. “We’re paying more attention because education is more necessary than ever before,” said Joanna Heilbrunn, senior research and policy analyst at the National Center for School Engagement. “But there is always a reason a kid is not in school, and just fining the family doesn’t do anything. Most families are low income and the barriers stem from income issues.”

The economics of truancy enforcement are boldly on display in Texas’ courts. From 2005 to 2009, truancy cases filed by public schools in the Lone Star state grew annually, from 85,000 to 120,000. Truancy courts are the traffic courts of public education, processing hundreds of parents and students daily in assembly-line fashion – even during summer months. The Dallas courts alone handle an average of 35,000 cases a year, and their revenue is eye-popping: just over $2 million in FY 2009 and nearly $1.8 million in FY 2011.

Truancy court was founded in 2003 because the problem of unexcused absences was overwhelming the juvenile court system; now Dallas has five truancy courts, each with its own judge and staff. “They’ve developed a whole system in Dallas that has to feed itself to justify its existence,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal advocacy group Texas Appleseed.

As in other states, truancy prosecutions seem motivated at least in part by the loss of state education dollars from student absenteeism. (Public schools receive funding based on their daily census, which is why attendance is taken every morning.)

There’s another potential revenue stream flowing from truancy courts. Under the Texas education code, school districts may enter into a memorandum of understanding with the truancy courts in their county to divide up the booty. “For some districts, it’s standard operating procedure to share fines with the court,” said Lisa Graybill, former legal director of the ACLU of Texas. “Too many people are unaware or indifferent to that.” Fines can cost up to $500 per truancy, due within 30 days unless a judge gives an extension. For many students and families, it’s another debt they can’t pay. And if fines aren’t paid, they can convert into an arrest warrant when a student turns 17.

Exorbitant fines and jail time plagued families in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where the public school district has been using the courts to deal with a very real attendance problem. Last year, the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the NAACP filed suit against the Lebanon School District, charging officials there with imposing fines far in excess of legal limits. The complaint alleges that the district went on a veritable ticketing spree between 2005 and 2010, filing 8,000 truancy violations and collecting $1.3 million in fines, all of which ended up in the district’s coffers. One plaintiff, a single parent named Omary Rodriguez-Fuentes, received 29 truancy tickets over three years along with fines totaling just under $7,000. To take care of the debt, Rodriguez-Fuentes was paying $150 a month from her disability income. State law limits fines to $300 but Lebanon schools and the truancy court routinely violated those limits, according to the complaint. In July, the court hearing the lawsuit granted it class action status, adding 170 more plaintiffs to the original four.

Lead attorney Michael Churchill says that shifting demographics over the last decade are at the core of Lebanon’s truancy woes, with newer Latino residents now forming a majority in the schools and longtime white residents feeling resentment. Truancy is at 14 percent and the dropout rate is 45 percent. “For the most part, the Hispanics don’t have lot of interaction with the rest of the community,” he said. “Lots of students aren’t comfortable or doing well in school, so there’s a high dropout rate. The schools’ reaction was, instead of offering services, they went after truants.”

The lawsuit is far from resolved but it has forced the district to repay about $400,000 in illegal fines to families; the courts there are now following the letter of the law in imposing new fines. Churchill is still fighting for $108,000 more in refunds for plaintiffs, and a trial is scheduled for September. Rebecca Young, an attorney for the district, declined to comment for this article. Meanwhile, the district’s ticketing blitz has slowed, which school officials attribute to the lawsuit making parents more careful about truancy.

Truancy court’s “secret society”

In Rhode Island, the truancy court program has become infamous, not for sky-high fines and voluminous dockets, but for the large proportion of students with learning and other disabilities who have landed in its iron grip. For Rozanne Thomasian and her daughter Cheyenne, the nightmare began in 2007 when Cheyenne was in seventh grade. Cheyenne, who attended a public school in South Kingston, had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) because of severe ADHD and Tourettes Syndrome, and the medications she was taking for anxiety. The meds caused stomach problems, which in turn caused school absences and tardiness.

Thomasian learned that the school had filed a truancy petition for Cheyenne’s excessive absences when a truancy officer came to their home. She had no idea she needed doctor’s notes to justify her daughter’s absences. “There were no set guidelines,” Thomasian said in a phone interview. “Each district had their own definition of truancy – if a child is late once, or five times – there was no consistency from school to school, even in the same district.”

Thomasian, a single mom who works as a nurse, and Cheyenne fell into the rabbit’s hole of the family court’s truancy diversion program. There they remained stuck for three years. Without understanding the legal process or possible penalties, mother and daughter signed away their right to be heard in either family court or truancy court at their very first hearing. The magistrate didn’t question the merit of the school’s petition but instead ruled Cheyenne “wayward,” putting her under court supervision that required weekly meetings. Due process didn’t seem to mean much during the hearing; no transcripts were made of the court proceedings, making it impossible for the mother to appeal her case.

“It’s like a secret society. How many parents and children can we scare?” said Thomasian, who attended many of the hearings with Cheyenne. When the judge threatened to send Cheyenne to detention during one meeting, Thomasian contacted the ACLU. Soon after, the magistrate declared that Cheyenne had “graduated” from truancy court.

“What’s going on with Rhode Island is schools are using the truancy program for kids who are difficult to educate,” said the ACLU’s Courtney Bowe. She is the lead attorney on a lawsuit against the courts and school districts that participate in the truancy program. “Rhode Island is not alone, but because of the way they define truancy, they’ve thrown the rule book out of window,” Bowe said.

L.A.’s curfew problem

 Los Angeles has attacked its truancy problem, which reached about 36 percent last year, with a daytime curfew and aggressive policing and tickets for all those violating it. The crackdown hasn’t managed to improve attendance, but it has sent thousands of kids and their parents to court and incited a student revolt against the policies.

Cinthia Gonzalez joined the campaign against the truancy sweeps as a sophomore at Roosevelt High, where she was editor of the newspaper and a college-track student. But good academics didn’t shield her from truancy enforcement. “Three cops stopped me one day a block from school,” she recalled. “I wasn’t even supposed to be in school anyway. I was really mad. It was embarrassing.” She was lucky the police let her go without a fine. “My friends who got tickets were outraged. They had to pay $250 and their parents would have to miss work to go to court,” Gonzalez said.

From 2009 to 2011, L.A. school police issued 33,500 tickets to students on or near school campuses; nearly a third were for violations of the daytime curfew, according to data obtained by the Community Rights, the ACLU of Southern California, and public counsel. City police also conducted truancy sweeps and were known to ticket tardy students on their way to school, sometimes handcuffing them.

Curfews are a popular prescription for curbing crime, but there is scant proof they work. A widely cited 2003 study by Kenneth Adams, funded by the National Institute of Justice, surveyed the research and found little “to support the argument that curfews reduce crime and criminal victimization.” Enforcement generates arrests for curfew-related violations, which Adams suggests, “needlessly add to the criminal histories of some juveniles.”

The Community Rights Campaign spent five years fighting rampant curfew ticketing of L.A.’s public school students, who are overwhelmingly Black, Latino, and low-income.

In the spring of 2011, the L.A. police halted ticketing tardy students and stopped running truancy sweeps during the first hour of school. In October, the school police followed suit. Last February, the L.A. City Council amended the daytime curfew: no tickets for students late to school; no fines or court appearances for the first two curfew violations; and fines for a third offense limited to $20.

But the campaign’s broader agenda is to improve the quality of L.A.’s public schools to entice students to attend – not avoid – class. Truancy is a symptom of schools’ failure, not the students’, says campaign director Manuel Criollo. “Officials say if you don’t go to school, you’re going to end up in jail. The automatic assumption is that you’re up to no good, and that’s the wrong response to what’s happening in public schools,” he said. “What is the responsibility of the school? If they have a 50 percent failure rate, it should indicate something is wrong.”

This article was reposted from its original source, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. It has been abridged for the purpose of space.

Photo: Ilike/Shutterstock, courtesy of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.