Students as young as 12 in the Dallas area are being charged with misdemeanors and sent to Texas’s adult courts when they skip school, in truancy practices that are among the country’s harshest, according to a complaint advocates plan to file with the Justice Department’s civil rights division Wednesday.
The complaint — from three public interest law centers against four Dallas area school districts and Dallas County’s truancy courts — alleges that students have been denied constitutional rights, handcuffed and fined in a court system that does not appoint legal representatives or provide the confidentiality protections of juvenile court.
Texas sends 113,000 students, ages 12 to 17, to courts for truancy violations each year, more than twice as many students as in the other 49 states combined, according to lawyers filing the complaint. The complaint said that last fiscal year, Dallas County truancy courts prosecuted more than 36,000 truancy cases.
“Dallas is, by far, the most aggressive in the state of Texas, and Texas is way more aggressive than any other state,” said Michael Harris, senior attorney at the National Center for Youth Law, which plans to file the complaint along with Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas.
Advocates plan to file the action on behalf of seven students, including an eighth-grader who did not turn in a doctor’s note on time after missing school with the flu and a teenager with learning disabilities who was ordered to pay more than $1,000 in court fines.
“I think you’d be hard pressed to find more punitive truancy practices,” said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, contending that courts should be a last resort for truancy violations.
Several school officials said they were still reviewing the complaint Tuesday, but they defended their approaches.
“We definitely do see [court] as a last resort,” said Marlene Gardner, attendance administrator for the Garland Independent School District, in the northeast suburbs of Dallas. “We are doing a lot of intervening before we are sending students to court.”
Officials from Richardson Independent School District said in a statement that educators work to prevent truancy and dropping out. When problems occur, they follow state law, the statement said.
Lawyers involved in the complaint said they were astonished by what they found in adult courts in the Dallas area: students in handcuffs led before judges for missing school and others arrested in the courtroom amid violations of court orders. Many were threatened with jail time. Some are left with criminal records, they said.
The complaint alleges that the practices constitute a violation of constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. School systems named in the complaint are Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson, all in Dallas County.
The complaint also alleges that districts use a “complex and confusing maze of policies” on attendance and violate the civil rights of students with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins issued a statement Tuesday noting improvements in graduation rates.
“Graduating is the goal,” Jenkins said. “With the state cuts to dropout prevention, the Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate.”