Students skipping school or being tardy are perennial topics for faculty meetings. Over the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen my share of proposed solutions, including Saturday school attendance, detention or suspension, campus clean-up, and even forcing parents to spend the day with their child at school.
School officials in Dallas, Texas, think they have the answer: truant and tardy students are fined, and sometimes they are sent to jail.
We are not talking about a few isolated cases here: according to Alternet, Texas adult courts in one recent year handled 113,000 truancy cases, while Dallas County truancy court alone collected nearly $3 million in fines. It also sent 67 students age 17 and older to jail because of truancy violations, and 53 students younger than 17 to juvenile detention centers.
Outraged by this, advocacy groups have filed a civil rights complaint with the Justice Department on behalf of seven students in Texas.
The complaint, filed on June 12 by Texas Appleseed, the National Center for Youth Law and Disability Rights Texas, says that the truancy courts in Dallas County have prosecuted more than 36,000 students in four school districts, more than any other Texas county.
Children Prosecuted As Adults
The complaint urges the Justice Department to force reforms and “declare the practice of criminally prosecuting children as adults for truancy” a violation of their constitutional rights. It also asserts that the program unfairly targets minorities and underprivileged students, and routinely puts youngsters in jail rather than keeping them in school.
• Students have been taken out of school in handcuffs, held in jail for days at a time, and fines have totaled more than $1,000 for students who miss more than 10 days of school.
• The students who are hauled into court to face truancy or lateness charges are not provided with legal counsel. The only lawyers in the courtroom are the judge and a member of the district attorney’s office, unless the student’s family can afford their own representation.
• Defendants are charged court fees even if they prevail in fighting the accusations, discouraging people from exercising their right to a full hearing.
The school-to-prison pipeline is not a new idea: indeed, last year the Department of Justice accused officials in Lauderdale County, Mississippi, of operating just such a pipeline, because a disproportionate number of students who were African-American and/or had disabilities were arrested and incarcerated for alleged minor infractions of school discipline.
Dallas County has apparently found another way to operate a school-to-prison pipeline.
No one denies that truancy is a huge problem. Across the U.S., 7,000 high school students drop out every day: that’s one every 26 seconds. Since research suggests that teens who regularly skip school are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, experts are deeply concerned about truancy.
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins believes he’s got the problem nailed. In a statement, he defended the program:
“The Dallas County system offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate,” said Jenkins, adding that the courts are staffed by attorneys who specialize in juvenile justice issues, and make use of agencies who work to solve the underlying issues behind the truancy of students.
The truancy court “offers the best chance for truant students to get back in class and graduate”? Does Mr. Jenkins really believe that having truant kids sit in jail, thereby missing even more school days, is the best way to help them graduate?
More enlightened thinking in educational circles these days is even questioning the use of suspensions as punishment. As many teachers are aware, kids often enjoy those days at home, when they can play games, watch TV, do just as they please all day long.
Restorative justice is the name of a program increasingly offered in schools seeking an alternative to “zero tolerance” policies like suspension, expulsion and truancy courts.
Since suspending students, or sending them to court, often leads to academic failure, thereby perpetuating the very behavior it is seeking to address, restorative justice instead provides a way of addressing negative behavior by keeping a student at school and using various means to encourage the offender to take responsibility and make amends.
The approach, which is now taking root in schools in Oakland, California, as well as Chicago, Denver and Portland, tries to nip problems and violence in the bud by creating stronger and more open relationships between students, teachers and administrators.
There are myriad reasons for students to skip school. Students are homeless, responsible for younger siblings, have children of their own, must work to help make ends meet, or care for ailing relatives. Some enroll in schools far away and get tired of taking three buses. Others say they are bored, while still others may be afraid to attend school.
Fining these students or sending them to jail will only succeed in ensuring they never want to return to school.
What do you think?