4 Reasons Why Texas Sending Kids Who Skip School to Jail Is Awful

Leave it to Texas to find a horrible way to punish students who skip school. While most states would tackle this problem with detentions or suspensions, Texas addresses truancy by locking up teenagers in jail for a few days.

In a long-form report, BuzzFeed investigated the prevalence of students being sent to jail for missing school. Statistics aren’t largely available on these student incarceration rates, but a pair of news reporters found over 1,000 cases where kids went to jail over the past three years. Worst of all, these are the numbers they discovered after inspecting records from just nine out of Texas’s 200+ counties.

Almost all of the kids who were locked up have a couple things in common: they’re from unstable families living in poverty and they’re not white. Go figure that it’s just the at-risk kids who are ending up in the slammer for something richer kids get away with all of the time.

Here are the biggest problems with Texas’s proclivity for locking up kids for truancy:

1. Students Are Actually Being Punished for Being Poor

Cutting class is against the law, but it’s nothing that some money can’t settle. Families are generally charged a few hundred dollars per missed day of school, and assuming the parents can pay that fine, the problem goes away. It’s when families cannot afford to pay these fines that the problem exacerbates. Students wind up going to jail not for truancy, but for being unable to pay court fines. In essence they’re locked up for being poor.

Technically, Texas law forbids judges from locking up kids from families that cannot pay their fines to avoid establishing quasi-debtors’ prisons. In actuality, however, Texas judges are doing precisely that anyway.

2. Students Do Not Receive Lawyers

Because Texas has deemed truancy a minor misdemeanor, it does not provide a public defender to students in these cases. However, the way Texas classifies truancy is irrelevant if in actuality the state is sending kids to jail and giving them steep fines. With this much at stake, these teens deserve to have counsel.

In fact, the majority of school skippers in the state who do procure their own legal representation have their charges dropped; one attorney points out that it’s usually as simple as demonstrating that a family is financially unable to pay the fines. The problem is, of course, that most students in this situation cannot afford a lawyer to argue that they’re too poor in the first place.

3. It’s Unsafe for Kids

Texas doesn’t have some magical jail where students who cut class get lumped together in some teen-appropriate cells. Instead, the students are held in the same cells as adults, including those who have just committed violent crimes. A few of the jailed kids who spoke to BuzzFeed said they were either threatened or outright assaulted by fellow inmates.

The dangers go beyond physical harm. The mental anguish from these conditions can be rough for teenagers, with multiple students becoming suicidal after their stints in jail. Teenagers with preexisting conditions like bipolar disorder and depression probably shouldn’t face this punishment in the first place, but they’re winding up locked up anyway.

4. Kids Are Still Missing School

If a judge’s aim is to teach kids that missing school is bad, how is taking them out of the classroom and putting them in jail a way to get the point across? Jail just removes kids from the classroom for longer and makes the students’ returns to the classroom less likely to be successful.

Though teenagers can file their jail time as excused absences, most don’t know to take these steps and wind up with more unexcused absences that leave them in further trouble. Some Texas students are even un-enrolled from school while serving time, and when they try to return, they find out they’re no longer allowed to attend. Well that’ll teach them to stay in school!

Hmm, it seems like jail probably isn’t the answer for truancy, but then you probably needed zero of these reasons to recognize that point. Something like some after-school community service would probably be a lot more effective toward actually keeping these kids in school.

Photo credit: Thinkstock


Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Jeremy S.
Jeremy S3 years ago

I lived in Texas for five miserable years during my childhood--this hadn't been implemented then, or at least not where I lived. Not that it would have affected me anyway, since I always went to school, but that's not my point. (I can say, though, that all those kids have to go somewhere, if they're not in school--and a lot of kids running around the neighborhood are likely to get into mischief...)

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago


Julia Cabrera-Woscek

Not the place for them. I agree with most of you.

DaleLovesOttawa O.

Joanna M, certainly I view jail as far too severe a punishment, but then at times, American society sometimes appears to be at times more 'punishment orientated' than other western societies, especially when it comes to your incarceration rates in comparison to the rest of the western world. Tossing students into jail for skipping school just seems too extreme. The 'solution,' it is difficult to say, it depends on the student and what motivates them to skip school in the first place. If the parents can't afford to pay the fine, should they be sent to 'debtor's prison?'

"Uh...yeah...isn't that kind of the POINT of jail? As a place for people caught doing something wrong?"

Fascinating. Many societies prefer less harsher methods, community service, without forms of repressive incarceration. Especially for kids.

DaleLovesOttawa O.

There is the problem of students skipping school all over the world, but not every society chooses to send kids to jail for it, but then, the 'for profit prison system' is a growing industry within the U.S.

"But in this country, enforcement is less likely - in Manitoba, judges can fine truant students up to $500, but Winnipeg school trustee Mike Babinsky doesn't remember a single fine being handed out in the last 15 years: "For you to go do the investigation in regards to the child actually dropping out and actually taking it to the courthouse and getting representation ... it's not worth it."


Warren Webber
Warren Webber3 years ago

Live long and prosper!

Bernie 2016!

Joanna M.
Joanna M3 years ago

Part of the problem, IMO, is that many kids today have zero respect for adults. They are allowed to do whatever they want with no real consequences from the start, and it only escalates.

I work in an urban school district (not Texas) and just recently spoke to the mother of a 5-year-old whose son had been suspended from the bus for a week. The driver had tried the gamut of usual steps, starting with many warnings to stop the behavior, followed by having the child sit in the closest seat next to him, etc. Eventually, however, there was no choice but to punish the child with a suspension.

That, of course, punishes the parent as well, since mom or dad must scramble to make alternate arrangements while off at work, transporting other siblings, etc. So this particular parent was in similar shoes, and she was concerned the child might have it happen again. Her solution? That we get a bus monitor to watch her son and make sure he behaves. I explained that's a paid position and so we don't have the budget to have more than a few, mainly in the most special needs of buses. Mom then asked, "So what should I do?" I said, "Talk to your son and make him understand he needs to behave."

Mom's response? "I tried...he doesn't want to listen."

Uh...he's FIVE! If you can't control the behavior of a child that young, I shudder to imagine what will happen when he's 10 or 15. But sadly, this kind of situation is not uncommon, and of course it leads to all kinds of problems, truancy amo

Joanna M.
Joanna M3 years ago

@ DaleLovesOttawa - Ok, so what is YOUR suggestion? If all lesser punishments/tactics/etc have already been tried to no avail, but jail is too severe, what would you have the schools do? I'm not being facetious, but genuinely curious.

Joanna M.
Joanna M3 years ago

Sheri S. said "Jail will only teach them that if they get caught doing something wrong, that's where they'll end up."

Uh...yeah...isn't that kind of the POINT of jail? As a place for people caught doing something wrong?