Prompted by concern over racial disparities in truancy filings, Fort Bend ISD suspended the enforcement of its truancy procedures pending a full review.

“The way our district enforces the state’s compulsory attendance laws has been the subject of many conversations,” FBISD Superintendent Charles Dupre said. “After listening to a variety of community voices, we have determined we must perform a complete review of the truancy procedures. Therefore [FBISD] is immediately suspending [its] existing truancy procedures, including referring students to truancy court, while this review is conducted.”

The decision to suspend truancy procedures—announced in a letter to parents April 27—is the result of a culmination of events, including a March report by Austin-based advocacy group Texas Appleseed that revealed racial disparities in the application of truancy laws not only statewide but in FBISD as well.

In response to the report, state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, sent a letter March 18 to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urging the Department of Justice to launch an investigation into Texas’ truancy laws. In his letter, Ellis noted the criminalization of truancy is a statewide issue but specifically cited racial disparities in truancy complaints filed by FBISD. The Justice Department announced in April that it would launch an investigation that focuses on issues of due process for juveniles in Dallas County Truancy Court.

“I am pleased that the Department of Justice has begun looking into Texas’ truancy system,” Ellis said. “I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students.”

According to the Texas Appleseed report, in FBISD’s 2012-13 school year African-American students comprised 53.3 percent of all truancy cases filed and accounted for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in FBISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed and accounted for 26.5 percent of enrollment, while 6.1 percent of those charged were white and 7.7 percent were classified as other races and represented 19.2 and 25.2 percent of the district’s enrollment, respectively. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases while representing 6.3 percent of enrollment.

Ellis said he would still like to see the Justice Department focus its investigation on FBISD but did support the district’s decision to suspend its truancy procedures pending a review.

“I commend Superintendent Dupre and FBISD for suspending their truancy program while it conducts a review of truancy procedures,” he said.

Truancy in Texas

Texas truancy law is considered among the harshest in the nation, and Texas is one of only two states that send truancy cases to adult criminal courts, according to Texas Appleseed, which has studied, reported and advocated for reform on many facets of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Under Texas law a school may refer students to court for truancy if they accumulate unexcused absences for three days within a four-week period. The school must file a Failure to Attend School Class C misdemeanor charge when a student accumulates unexcused absences for 10 days within a six-month period. An excused absence requires a note from a parent or guardian that must be submitted within five days of the absence, Dupre said.

Truancy cases can be brought against students ages 12 to 17 and can carry fines of up to $500. Failure to comply can result in an arrest warrant and possibly incarceration. Since truancy is considered a misdemeanor under Texas law, the state does not provide access to legal counsel to those charged. As a result many defendants typically advocate for themselves and either plead guilty or no contest, according to Texas Appleseed.

The Texas Appleseed report found in 2013 Texas filed more than twice the number of truancy cases than all other states combined. The report concluded that criminal truancy cases in Texas disproportionately affected African-American, Hispanic and special education students. The report also stated that 4 out of 5 students sent to court for truancy were classified as economically disadvantaged. Many state officials said existing state truancy laws unfairly punish poor children and criminalize hardship.

“Simply put, these laws hurt students, particularly the African-American, Latino and special education students,” Ellis said. “Education is the most important key to unlocking opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of school and further away from those opportunities.”

Mary Schmid Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project, said there is no evidence to support that most truant students are simply skipping school. She said truancy most often results from a combination of personal, family and school issues, such as caring for a sick parent, homelessness and other socioeconomic factors.

One reason behind the high number of truancy cases is that many school districts attempt no meaningful interventions with truant students before referring them to court, Mergler said.

“In the vast majority of cases, the school, working with the student and family, could address the truancy problem if it made meaningful attempts to do so,” Mergler said. “Instead, schools often pass the responsibility to courts that are not designed, equipped or trained to provide meaningful assistance to students and their families.”

The Texas Legislature is considering several bills this session that address truancy reform. The Senate Criminal Justice Committee on April 15 passed Senate Bill 106 authored by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, in a 26-5 vote. The bill would decriminalize truancy while also reducing the associated fines and requiring schools to implement truancy prevention measures. The bill has moved to the House for approval.

“My hope is that this bill will bring much-needed reforms to our truancy system,” said Ellis, who co-authored SB 106. “Sticking children in jail and forcing them to pay fines, which they often can’t afford, is the wrong approach and counterproductive. We also need school districts to implement evidence-based practices proven to be more efficient and effective at keeping our students in school and out of our courtrooms.”

Truancy in FBISD

Immediately after being named FBISD superintendent in 2013, Dupre said he initiated a comprehensive review of the district’s disciplinary policies, including the district’s response to truancy.

Because students at campuses most affected by low socioeconomic status are at greater risk of truancy due to factors outside of school, the district placed additional truancy and dropout support specialists at those campuses, he said. The district also made changes to its Truancy Diversion Program and other procedures to help quell the number of truancy cases going to court.

However, despite the implementation and success of new procedures related to how the district handles truancy, Dupre said further review of the district’s policies was needed.

“Over the years, we developed a truancy prevention program that is designed to serve our students and abide by state attendance laws,” he said. “With the recent expressed concerns about the way FBISD handles truancy matters, we believe it will be in the best interest of our students and the community for us to re-examine aspects of the [truancy] system that might need to be improved.”

Campuses will continue to take attendance but will not be issuing any court referrals, said Amanda Bubela, media relations coordinator for FBISD.

The internal review will be spearheaded by Deputy Superintendent Christie Whitbeck and is expected to be complete in May. Following its completion, the district will determine how best to proceed with unexcused absences and comply with any future legislation from the Legislature, Bubela said.

As a result of the district’s decision, all initial plea dockets for truancy cases at Fort Bend County’s Truancy Court in May have been postponed until further notice, FBISD Truancy Court Judge Nina Schaefer said. The court anticipates resuming normal dockets once FBISD has concluded its review.

FBISD will host two community meetings May 13 and May 20 to discuss efforts to help all children succeed.

“We expect that the review will determine if any procedural changes are necessary, and if so, how soon they should be implemented,” Bubela said. “In the meantime, FBISD will move forward with plans to meet with the community and come up with solutions to keep our students engaged and in the classroom.”