Punishment reviewed for kids who miss too much school

AUSTIN (KXAN) — State lawmakers listened to educators, judges and policy experts Thursday on their thoughts about possibly changing a law that that criminally punishes children who skip class. Students who miss too many days of school currently receive a Class C misdemeanor.

The Senate Committee on Jurisprudence, chaired by Sen. Royce West (D-Dallas), heard from people all over the state when it comes to changing the law from a criminal penalty to a civil penalty for those who skip school. Some believe the current law is too harsh and criminalizes students, others think it’s fine.

“If the child breaks the law, yes, a criminal justice has proper jurisdiction, but if a kid skips school he does not belong in court,” said Derek Cohen, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “I would like to see the failure to attend school provision in the Texas Education Code completely removed.”

As it stands now, a student who misses three days of school in four weeks can be charged with ‘failure to attend school,’ a Class C misdemeanor. If the student misses 10 days of school in six months, they are automatically charged with the offense, according to Texas’ Education Code. The law requires kids to attend school from the age of 6 to 18 years old.

The penalty also carries a $500 fine and if a student doesn’t pay it, he or she could face time in juvenile detention. In comparison, a civil offense is considered a lighter punishment and it’s typically the violation of an administrative matter, like a parking ticket.

“I view truancy as a criminal law offense because I see it as a gateway to crime,” said James Henry, a juvenile case manager for Midland County who believes the law is fine as is. “I understand they don’t want to stigmatize kids with the label of criminal and have a criminal history and things like that, but at the same time it’s very important to hold kids accountable for what they’re doing.”

Gov. Rick Perry vetoed Senate Bill 1234 in 2013, which would have placed more of the responsibility on school districts rather than the judicial system. Even though the proposed legislation was aimed to hold students accountable, it didn’t “track the child from district to district and (the records) are lost as a student transfers from one school to another, which is common for chronically truant students,” the governor said in a statement. He went on to say that it “hurt established local programs and prevented schools from identifying and helping address the issues students are facing. Additionally, SB 1234 conflicts with other legislation, such as SB 393, concerning which truancies are considered a ticketable offense.”

Henry said even though he likes the law the way it is, he wants to see districts do more to help students.

“We would like to see prevention and intervention measures,” he said. “Truancy is a social issue…it affects families, communities and everyone involved and so we definitely need resources to help families out.” Henry believes some kids skip out on class for reasons such as not being able to read because they didn’t have glasses.

Advocacy groups like Texas Appleseed, which looks at school discipline polices, court involvement and other issues that impact dropout rates and incarcerations, said that state prosecuted more than 113,000 students who were truant in 2012.

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