Pre-teens in Texas won’t go to the principal if they miss too many days of school. Instead, they’ll see a judge.
As Al Jazeera points out in a detailed new investigation, the Lone Star State makes millions each year by prosecuting thousands of children — some as young as 12 — for missing school.
In the late ’90s, Texas redirected its truancy cases to adult criminal courts. Since then, the number of truancy cases in the state has ballooned. According to education advocacy group Texas Appleseed, in 2013 Texas handled over 115,000 truancy cases, over double the number of every other state combined.
As Al Jazeera notes, truancy is a huge source of revenue for the state. In 2014, Texas made $16.4 million from court fees and fines in truancy cases. The vast majority of the fines were brought against minority and low-income students.
If students miss 10 days of school over a six-month period, they’re liable to be charged for truancy. Students who plead guilty often face $500 fines and can face jail time if they fail to pay.
Advocates have had some success pushing back against harsh truancy policies.
In March, the Justice Department announced that it was investigating truancy courts in Dallas for potentially violating Texans’ rights to due process. State law classifies truancy as a Class C misdemeanor, which means students are not provided a lawyer in proceedings. Critics of the current truancy laws assert that the disproportionate number of guilty or no contest pleas demonstrate that the law violates due process, since so few students fight the charges.
“This investigation continues the Justice Department’s focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances,” former Attorney General Eric Holder said in late March.
As Al Jazeera notes, truancy is the number one reason why Texas students enter the justice system.
Though state legislators have called for truancy reform, some school districts have resisted. NPR notes that some school officials worry that easing truancy punishment will send the wrong message to students.