Skipping class is no longer a crime, but is it ending truancy?

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- As students head back to class, the slate is wiped clean. Now is their chance to start off on the right foot by showing up to class every day.

This will be schools' second year to operate under the state’s new truancy law. During the 2015 legislative session, Texas lawmakers decided children missing too much school should not be a crime, and sending students to court for skipping class should be a last resort. The move came after what some described as an out-of-control culture of schools sending too many students to court with Class C misdemeanors for truancy.

Manny Cisneros was one of those students. The trouble started his junior year at Lehman High School in the Hays Consolidated Independent School District.

“I started hanging around with the wrong people, and I just really didn't care about going to school,” said Cisneros. “I’d skip school… I would miss like maybe three days out of the week for a whole two months, three months.”

Bad choices eventually landed Cisneros in jail with a truancy charge. He says it was the wake-up call he needed.

"Without the criminal element, without you getting in trouble, without that push, I feel like I would've been in the same road," said Cisneros, who ended up back in school and graduated in 2015.

While Cisneros said jail time was what made him reevaluate his path, that option is not available to schools anymore.

Manny Cisneros, with his family, on his graduation from Lehman High in 2016. (Courtesy: Cisneros Family)
Manny Cisneros, with his family, on his graduation from Lehman High in 2016. (Courtesy: Cisneros Family)

The new law has changed the timeline and workload for Hays CISD attendance officer Jennifer Narvais. Before, when a student hit 10 unexcused absences in one semester she could refer the case to court and they would be in front of a judge within a month. Now, when a student hits just three unexcused absences, they are on Narvais' radar and must sign a contract called an Attendance Behavior Improvement Plan.

“It’s a contract for the student that says you're going to come to school every day, be on time, turn in notes,” explains Narvais.

Signing the contract starts a 45-day plan, which is how long schools have to work with the student and parents to solve the problem. If there are no signs of improvement, an administrator can send the case to the county attorney who has another 45-day window to decide if the student should go to court. A court then has 10 days to file the case, which means it could be up to three months before that student appears before a judge.

“By the time we see them, they've missed 40 days, 50 days and they're so far behind I don't think there's any way to catch them up,” said Judge Beth Smith, Pct. 2 County Justice of the Peace.

She says students racking up that many consecutive absences are not making any effort to go to school in the meantime.

Truancy Caseload

While the clock continues ticking for students with the worst attendance, the number of students ending up in court is going down.

During the 2015-2016 school year, Judge Smith heard 25 cases, which is down from 81 cases during the 2013-2014 school year.

During truancy court, Judge Smith’s goal has always been to figure out what’s contributing to the student's absences.

“You said you were sick for the first week,” Judge Smith tells a student who ended up in her courtroom. “Ok, that's seven days, so what happened to the other 17 days?”

Even with criminal charges out of the equation, she can still require drug testing, community service, counseling and assess fines—even for parents.

Judge Smith's Truancy Caseload
2015-16: 25
2013-14: 81
2012-13: 129
2013-14: 161
*Only includes juveniles, not 17-year-olds

At Lehman High School, Narvais says some students don't take those consequences seriously. “We have no pull, we have no teeth to keep these kids in school because they hear it's not illegal anymore,” said Narvais.

The Austin Independent School District says its district is experiencing similar problems with compliance. “Students have expressed a lack of concern regarding truancy court referrals since it is no longer a criminal offense," said the district in an email.

Rep. James White, R-Woodville, a former teacher who wrote the truancy bill thinks it is too soon to give the law a grade.

“I think we want to look at this for another school year,” said White. “I don't foresee going into next session making any drastic changes. We need to get the data in and data is hard numbers."

The Texas Education Agency says it will be another year before attendance rates are in for school districts across the state. In the meantime, Rep. White is curious about what campuses are doing during the 45-day contract period.

“When the student reached the 10 unexcused absence mark did we just stop the interventions, and we're just waiting for the clock to tick?” asked White. “Or are we still reaching out to that family, to that child and trying to bring them in?”

Narvais admits the campus needs to do more but realizes the school's limitations.

“Our goal would be to intervene in this time during the contract if we see any more absences, but with so many students and just being the two of us, it's really, really hard,” said Narvais. Last school year, she was one of only two attendance officers for the entire Hays CISD.

The district just hired two more attendance officers and has been working on a plan to create a more supportive environment for struggling students.

Hays CISD on how they're tackling truancy

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