Complaint challenges Texas truancy court system

Texas takes a strikingly punitive approach to addressing school attendance issues.

In fiscal year 2012, Texas prosecuted 113,000 truancy cases, or more than double that of the other 49 states combined. Texas is one of just two states that prosecutes truancy as a crime in adult courts, meaning that students often receive large fines, jail time and a criminal record for missing days of school.

Texas Capitol Buliding
Texas Capitol Buliding

The effects of this heavy-handed approach are most felt by students with disabilities. These students often are ushered into truancy court due to inflexible scheduling policies and missed days arising from the schools’ failures to provide necessary special education services.

On June 12, Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed filed a complaint on behalf of 7 students with the U.S. Justice Department, against four schools districts in the Dallas area that are among the frequent users of the state’s truancy courts system.

“Truancy fines and trips to court for students with disabilities are not the answer. Schools need to make sure these students have the tools and help they need to keep up in class,” said Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas, in a news release.

In the 59-page complaint, the plaintiffs argue that the school districts’ truancy policies violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, calling the punishments “grossly disproportionate to the offending behavior and the children who engage in it.”

The complaint accuses the districts of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to accommodate students’ disabilities.

One of the students in the complaint missed a few days due to her chronic respiratory problems. Her school district refused to accept her doctor’s complaint because it was made after she had already been referred to truancy court, where she she had to plead “no contest” and pay a fine.

Another student in the complaint had to miss multiple school days because she was hospitalized due to her asthma. Nonetheless, the school district refused to accept her doctor’s note because too many days had passed since her last absence.

In addition, the complaint accuses the districts of violating the students’ due process rights and various civil rights violations relating to the effects of truancy policies on minority, bilingual and pregnant students.

“These practices and systemic violations of students’ federally-protected rights make the truancy courts in Dallas County one of the largest and most efficient ‘school-to- prison’ pipelines in the state, if not the nation.,” the complaint states.

In August 2012, a first-of-its kind nationwide study found that students with disabilities are more than twice as likely to be suspended as their peers.

Disability Rights Texas is part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.