Dallas Truancy Court System Faces Civil Rights Complaints

The Dallas, Garland and Richardson school districts in Texas are expected to face possible complaints filed through the US Justice Department regarding truancy courts. Three advocacy groups including Disability Rights Texas, Texas Appleseed and the National Center for Youth Law allege that students are having their civil rights violated when they are handcuffed on school campuses and taken to court on truancy charges, reports Dallas News writer Brandon Formby.

They allege that the school districts' reliance on an electronic attendance-tracking system that automatically provides reports to the county takes common sense and fairness out of criminal proceedings that many times involve juveniles.

"It means, ultimately, that a computer is making a probable cause determination," said Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed.

Seven students are said to have undergone "cruel and unusual" punishment according to the three law centers complaining on their behalf. They argue that the students' Constitutional rights were violated because they were charged with misdemeanors due to record keeping errors or because they were held accountable for days of school they missed for valid reasons.

They want the Justice Department to require Texas schools to opt for school interventions before sending students to the courts. The groups also want schools to be required to excuse reasonable absences and tardiness and explain their truancy policies more explicitly.

Both Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and John Washington, an assistant Garland superintendent, has said they have never heard of students being arrested at school and taken to court due solely to a truancy charge.

Jenkins said the three law centers found seven instances they believed were mishandled out of tens of thousands of cases. He said they spent days "harassing" families at the truancy courts as they looked for disgruntled parents and students.

"People who are being held accountable for not complying with the law are generally not happy about it," Jenkins said.

The only two states that prosecute truancy in adult courts are Texas and Wyoming. The districts that participate send the data regarding their students' attendance to the courts, and if a student accrues ten absences they are ticketed.

One of the students to get ticketed was a 16-year-old who missed four days of school after her grandmother's death. Even though she turned the obituary in to the school, those days were still marked as unexcused.

Fowler is concerned that by "casting a broad net," students are being targeted that are not at risk of dropping out in the first place.

Jenkins believes that Dallas County has a model system. Dallas school district's dropout rate has dropped 12 percentage points, which he credits to the system in place.

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