Many high school students in Texas are concerned about keeping their grades up and getting into college. They know that a low GPA or standardized test score could have a negative impact on their future. What they may not realize, however, is that their school attendance (or lack thereof) could hit them even harder.
Texas is one of two states in the U.S. that charge students in adult criminal court for continuously missing class, according to a Houston Chronicle article. Students can be charged when they are as young as 12 years old, and they can be fined up to $500. The records of these charges are confidential, but they can have a harmful impact later on when potential schools or employers perform background checks.
These practices were spotlighted in a March 5 report released by Texas Appleseed, an advocacy group that fights against social and economic injustices. According to the report, 115,000 students in Texas were charged in accordance with truancy laws in 2013. This is twice as many cases as the other 49 states have combined. The Houston Chronicle also reports that “80 percent of the children sent to criminal court on truancy charges were economically disadvantaged, defined by their eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.”
“These children are least able to afford steep fines typically levied in response to truancy charges,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. “Failure to pay fines, which can run as high as $500, can result in an arrest warrant and even incarceration,” according to the Houston Chronicle.
Obviously, students of all incomes should go to school, but slapping lower-income students with a potentially unaffordable fine or an arrest warrant would only make matters worse. A child may have extenuating circumstances that could be handled in a far less dramatic way. Also, charging a student for missing school only exacerbates the problem, as they would be missing more school to appear in court. If their parents are called in, they would miss work, thus putting an even greater strain on many lower-income households.
According to the San Antonio Current, a school must file a Failure to Attend School Class C Misdemeanor charge if a student misses 10 days in a six-month period without approval. Schools may also file a Parent Contributing to Nonattendance against one or both of the student’s parents.
Texas Appleseed argues against these measures, saying that children who are prosecuted on truancy charges have a higher chance of dropping out and later going to prison.
“In the vast majority of cases, the school, working with the student and family, could address the truancy problem if it made meaningful attempts to do so,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project. “Instead, schools often pass the responsibility to courts that are not designed, equipped or trained to provide meaningful assistance to students and their families.”
The Texas Appleseed report recommends that students who face truancy charges should not be tried in adult criminal court and that both students and parents should not be hit with misdemeanor charges, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Texas Appleseed is right to try and soften the blow of truancy charges against students and parents. Schools should, in many cases, have the opportunity to attempt to resolve truancy issues with students and parents before being forced to file charges against them. There will always be cases that need to be handled more aggressively, but the law should provide room for parents and students to discuss the issue with school districts.
Perhaps soon there will be some change. According to the Houston Chronicle, David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Judicial Council, agreed with Texas Appleseed, saying, “They have to deal with the issues. What is causing the child to miss school?”
Perhaps if schools are allowed to “deal with the issues,” students will be able to go back to worrying about tests and grades, not criminal charges.
Dolan is a journalism freshman from Abilene. Follow Dolan on Twitter @mimimdolan.