A trio of disability advocacy groups submitted a complaint (PDF format) with the Texas Education Agency on May 26, accusing the state of systematically violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by the manner in which it punishes students who miss school.
“Students with disabilities should never be forced out as part of the truancy process…,” the complaint states. “These violations deprive students of any opportunity for educational benefit, any access to the general curriculum, any related services, and any transition services.
“School districts cannot escape their affirmative obligations to identify and appropriately serve all students with disabilities by forcing students out of services in all the ways identified in this complaint.”
Under Texas state law, “Failure to Attend School” is a Class C Misdemeanor. School officials are required to file a FTAS complaint – or in some cases refer students to juvenile court – against students with three or more unexcused “days or parts of days” in a four-week period, or 10 or more in six-month period.
Most accused students pay a fine, though some are incarcerated. As part of the process, administrative judges have three additional options that disability advocates view as back-door attempts to force students out of the system. Specifically, the judge can order students to take a General Education Development (test) rather than finish their high school diploma, be home schooled, or be placed in an alternative school arrangement.
Students have no right to counsel in these proceedings and a significant number of cases end in plea deals before the student even appears before a judge.
In the complaint, filed on behalf of students at 13 school districts in the Dallas area, Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed argue that students in need of special education services are disproportionately impacted in the system at every level.
The groups also argue that the Texas Education Agency is systematically violating IDEA’s “Child Find” requirement, which requires school officials to identify students in need of special education services, before referring them for truancy proceedings.
The IDEA also requires that school officials, prior to punishing students, evaluate students to determine if their disability was the root cause of the act for which they are being punished. It also requires schools to provide appropriate services, put together Individualized Education Program teams and take other steps that the advocacy groups argue are consistently violated by the system’s reliance on the truancy process.
In 2013, the three advocacy groups filed a similar complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, which also included alleged violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
In the 2012 and 2013 school years, Texas prosecuted nearly 115,000 students for truancy violations, more than double than that of the other 49 states combined.
Disability Rights Texas, and Disability Rights Washington, the publisher of Rooted in Rights, are part of the federally funded protection and advocacy system and members of the National Disability Rights Network.