Friday, August 14, 2020
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Texas decriminalizes unexcused absences

Gov Greg Abbott, Republican of Texas, signed into law on June 18 House Bill 2398, which makes truancy a civil offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500 for each day students are truant, but allows their criminal truancy records to be expunged, The Associated Press reports.

Texas Atty Gen Greg Abbott at a Congressional subcommittee hearing in 2011. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

In most of the US, cutting school might get you a detention, a suspension, or some other punishment, even a fine, but you’ll stay out of the criminal justice system for being truant in every state except Texas and Wyoming. With this new law, which takes effect on Sept 1, Texas makes truancy an important school issue, no longer a crime.

Before HB 2398, school officials in the Lone Star State had to report students with more than 10 unexcused absences over a six-month period to the police. Those students had to appear in court to answer the charge of failure to attend school, a Class C misdemeanor, and they could be fined up to $500 plus court costs. Then, if they couldn’t pay, they could be sent to jail upon turning 17.

In 2014, Texas courts collected an estimated $10 million in fines and court costs from truancy cases. A year earlier, the state prosecuted about 115,000 truancy cases, more than twice the number of cases filed in juvenile courts of all other states, according to a report from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Appleseed. Dallas County prosecuted some 36,000 cases of the 115,000, and at least 1,283 teenagers spent time in jail from 2013 through April 2015 because of the existing law, the Dallas Morning-News reported.

The paper’s editors wrote:

Texas Supreme Court chief justice Nathan Hecht wrote in February that the law had failed to put a deep enough dent in truancy.

It also led to unforeseen complications. Some children were handcuffed by police and paraded through the hallways of their school—a march of shame deemed excessive by its critics. Children also risked having a conviction listed on their permanent record.

The U.S. Department of Justice questioned whether students’ due-process rights were being violated; then-Attorney General Eric Holder warned that prosecution put children into a “schools-to-prison pipeline.”

Thank goodness for Texas and this much more sensible way of dealing with truancy. We’ll keep our eyes on Wyoming.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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