Texas is no stranger to unique approaches to its problems, sometimes even bordering on controversy, but one startling fact is putting the state’s schools and criminal records filings simultaneously in the spotlight. Currently, the state has prosecuted twice as many truancy cases as every single other state combined. What makes this statistic more complicated, too, is that many of these students are in high school and eligible to be tried as adults. Before long, high school students have criminal records for not attending school, which can raise the same red flags as other (and arguably much more serious) crimes that could be on their record.
One of the biggest issues is that truancy laws in Texas are often used as an initial solution to any attendance problems, rather than as a last resort. Rather than intervene themselves, schools often refer students straight to the courts when noticing a string of absences – which some say is obviously problematic for a number of reasons. Central to the issue is race politics in the state, as a disproportionate number of students who actually make it to being prosecuted are African American and Hispanic. Some say this shows a court bias in the way truancy cases are being handled. In a troubling step even further, sometimes special education students are prosecuted under these laws as well.
While judges have a number of options available to them, any sentence will usually be accompanied by a large fine, which may be difficult or impossible for the student and/or their family to pay. Ironically, some judges opt to pull students out of school and force them to enroll in GED programs. This may be due to a student’s bleak prospects of graduating traditional high school if they have missed enough class and brought their grades down to an unrecoverable point.
In the past three years, according to a state report following the issue, nearly 6,500 students have received this order and then gone on to fail their GED test after the completed course. Obviously, the amount to be gained from such punishments has been called into question.
What are the requirements for a Texas public school to refer a child to truancy? If a child misses just three days, or even parts of a day, within a month period, provided the absences are unexcused, the school is legally allowed to refer them to the truancy system. If the child misses 10 days within a six month period, the reporting is no longer optional, and it becomes mandatory for the child to be referred to the state’s system. The relatively low bars for reporting make it so that truancy is the state’s largest non-traffic related Class-C misdemeanor.
While there is debate over the harshness of truancy laws in the state, there is no denying that studies have consistently found a lack of attendance to be a (relatively unsurprising) indicator of poor academic performance in the future. It is unclear how the state legislature may respond to the latest report on truancy and its potential issues in the state.