STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In most places, missing a lot of school means a trip to the principal's office. In Texas, parents and students may end up in front of a judge. Two years ago, school districts there filed 115,000 truancy cases. State lawmakers and the U.S. Justice Department are now investigating whether prosecuting children and teenagers is doing more harm than good. NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: When public school students in Travis County, Texas, have 10 or more unexcused absences, they have to report here to the Travis County Courthouse, an austere, gray building in east Austin.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: How old are you, honey? Fourteen?
SANCHEZ: Today, like most days, the docket is full. Presiding is Justice of the Peace Yvonne Michelle Williams, a gregarious but stern woman.
YVONNE MICHELLE WILLIAMS: You're here for what we call a class C misdemeanor to tell you to attend school and...
SANCHEZ: Zaid Yassin has been summoned because his 5-year-old daughter, Fatima, has missed 23 days of school, all unexcused.
ZAID YASSIN: The reason she's unexcused, she don't go to the school is because when she's sick - high fever or like stomach pain or whatever - I drop a note the next day when I take her to the school.
SANCHEZ: Yassin says he's turned in a doctor's note every time Fatima has missed school. So are you pleading not guilty, Williams asks. Yassin nods yes. Outside the courtroom, Yassin breathes a sigh of relief.
Do you think you're in the clear? Do you think you're going to be OK?
YASSIN: Yeah, I mean...
SANCHEZ: Yassin still has to come back and prove Fatima's absences were legitimate. Most truancy cases, though, don't get this far.
DEBORAH FOWLER: It is extremely unusual to see a child or a parent enter a not guilty plea.
SANCHEZ: Deborah Fowler is with Texas Appleseed, a public service law center. It has compiled the most comprehensive if not damning study of school truancy policies in Texas.
FOWLER: We've met kids in court who have never had a disciplinary referral at school, students who have chronic health problems who end up in court because a parent may have forgotten to turn a medical excuse in.
SANCHEZ: Of course there will always be kids who have no excuse for skipping school. But chronic truancy is more complicated than that, says Fowler - having to care for a family member, pregnancy, drug use, an abusive situation at home, homelessness.
FOWLER: The scope of the problem is staggering.
SANCHEZ: But more often than not, says Fowler, adult courts see truant kids as troublemakers who just don't belong in school.
FOWLER: Over the three-year period ending in 2013, about 6,400 kids were ordered to withdraw, took the GED and failed it.
SANCHEZ: Eight out of 10 were either poor, black, Latino or in special education. All were counted as dropouts. It's one big reason the U.S. Justice Department has begun an investigation of its own.
JOHN WHITMIRE: Why would the federal government need to step in? Well, they don't if everybody would follow due process and don't discriminate. We haven't even talked about the racial profiling.
SANCHEZ: That's Texas State Senator John Whitmire, Democrat of Houston, chairman of the Senate's Criminal Justice Committee. He's calling for a review of truancy policies beginning with school districts where Whitmire says there is a lot of resistance.
WHITMIRE: I just think a lot of schools unfortunately are callous.
JOY BASKIN: I certainly wouldn't use the term callous to describe school administrators.
SANCHEZ: Joy Baskin is the top attorney for the Texas Association of School Boards.
BASKIN: In Texas, we have a mandatory system of enforcement for school attendance. We think it's a good thing.
SANCHEZ: Baskin says school boards do not oppose efforts to decriminalize truancy and require that schools provide more prevention and intervention before students are referred to adult court.
BASKIN: But there is a risk that if the system changed dramatically, it would send a signal that school attendance was not a priority for the state.
SANCHEZ: Texas started getting tough on truants back in the mid-1990s when the state decided to transfer truancy cases from juvenile courts to adult criminal courts better suited for traffic tickets and petty crimes. Deborah Fowler says adult courts, though, are nothing more than plea mills, built for high volume and making money. Truant students and their parents can face up to $1,500 in fines or jail time if they cannot come up with the money.
FOWLER: But we know in Texas that there are some judges who care about these kids and families and are trying to make lemonade out of the lemons that the law hands them.
SANCHEZ: Justice of the Peace Yvonne Michelle Williams in Austin has earned a reputation for being one of those judges. She's a fierce critic of the system because of how it treats kids.
WILLIAMS: And it's just pitiful.
SANCHEZ: Williams says the sheer number of truancy cases prosecuted in Texas speaks for itself - twice the number prosecuted in all other states combined.
WILLIAMS: What it says is Texas has some problems. So I have taken a different tact when it comes to truancy issues by saying we don't want to criminalize you. I want to stop that trend.
SANCHEZ: What's really glaring and upsetting, says Williams, is that way too many kids who end up in court have serious undiagnosed or untreated learning disabilities, which is why they miss so much school to begin with.
WILLIAMS: I had such a case this morning.
Edgar, how you doing?
EDGAR RAMIREZ: Good.
WILLIAMS: How old are you?
E. RAMIREZ: Seventeen.
SANCHEZ: Edgar Ramirez was that case. The 17-year-old hates school. His mother, Alma Ramirez, can't get him to go to school, so they've both been charged.
UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Through an interpreter, Williams explains their options - plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. Edgar and his mom plead no contest. Many truancy cases in Williams' court end up as no contest because she tells parents it leads to a dismissal of their case in 90 days as long as the student does not miss more school and does community service. Williams also wants Edgar to get help for his learning disability.
E. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: "I try to learn, but I forget everything. My memory is no good. I need help," says Edgar. His mother says he was evaluated at school, but the medicine he's taking only makes him moody and aggressive. Ultimately, she says, it's up to him to change his behavior.
ALMA RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: Mrs. Ramirez says she works in construction and does not want her son to struggle in life like her. She tells him you have an opportunity to do better if you go to school and study.
E. RAMIREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
SANCHEZ: "Your mom's advice sounds pretty good, don't you think," I ask Edgar. He stares at the floor and mumbles, "yes, I promise I'll do better." His mom says she's heard that before. Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.
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