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Groups seek Justice Department intervention in Dallas-area school discipline

Complaint alleges school districts and truancy courts are violating kids' rights

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Dallas-area students who are tardy or accused of unexcused absences are allegedly being handcuffed at school, forced into court and saddled with fines of up to $500 — in violation of their constitutional and civil rights, according to a complaint three civil rights groups filed Wednesday with the U.S. Justice Department.

The complaint was filed against four Texas school districts in the Dallas region and against Dallas County truancy courts, where children accused of excessive absences must appear before judges.

The complaint, which asks federal officials to intervene, alleges that students’ rights are violated because they appear in court for prosecution on misdemeanor charges with no appointed counsel; are inappropriately restrained; and are not adequately advised of their rights. The rights of children and parents who speak limited English and of disabled children have also been violated, the rights groups allege.

The Center contacted the independent school districts named in the complaint — Richardson, Mesquite, Dallas and Garland — and the truancy courts, but not all were available for comment. The districts that did respond said they were complying with the law, and using the truancy courts only as a last resort.

Attorneys with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit law group, the National Center for Youth Law and Disability Rights Texas filed the complaint on behalf of seven children.

Texas courts, the complaint charges, pursued about 113,000 truancy cases against children ages 12-17 in 2012, allegedly more than twice the number of truancy cases prosecuted in the other 49 states combined. Dallas County prosecutes more truancy cases than any other county in Texas, with more than 36,000 cases filed in 2012.

The courts collected in excess of $2.9 million in truancy fines in 2012. According to the complaint, that’s equivalent to about 75 percent of the Dallas Truancy Courts’ total operational costs per year.

Deputy Director of Texas Appleseed Deborah Fowler told the Center for Public Integrity she observed truancy court proceedings over the course of a year and witnessed tactics she believed amounted to intimidation.   

“The pressure on children during the plea process,” the complaint says, “is amplified by the truancy court’s threat of jail.” The complaint went to say that “families regularly reported that judges threatened to send children to jail, even children who were too young to be sent to jail.”

“During one court proceeding,” the complaint alleges, “a judge told a student that he would be ‘happy to take two days out of [the student’s] life’ by sending him to jail and that the student would ‘never get [those days] back again.’ ”

Richardson Independent School District published a statement saying that it complies with Texas Law in prosecuting truancy, and works proactively to educate students and parents about attendance expectations.

Laura Jobe, an administrative officer for communication for Mesquite Independent School District, said it treats truancy courts as “a last resort.”  The district has no current plans to update their truancy policy or practices, but will be reviewing the concerns raised in the complaint.

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins told the Dallas Morning News that that representatives of the three law centers spent days in court “harassing” families, and looking for disgruntled defendants.

“People who are being held accountable for not complying with the law are generally not happy about it,” the Morning News quoted the judge saying.

Attorneys with the law centers told the Center that schools in the Dallas area have developed a variety of stringent policies and anti-truancy rules that are often confusing and overly punitive.

In some schools, turning in a doctor’s note three days late means a sickness is counted as an unexcused absence. Three absences can lead to a Class C misdemeanor ticket, which carries up to $500 fines and if not paid, the risk of jail time once a minor turns 17.

One student named in the complaint, Brittany Brown, is a special-education student who claims to have received erroneous unexcused absences by her school. At her hearing, Brown appeared with no counsel, the complaint says, and her mother threatened with contempt of court.

Another student named in the complaint only by her initials, J.D., allegedly missed school because of illness – she suffers from asthma — and was prosecuted for truancy for failing to turn in a doctor’s note within three days.

Another student, K.W., has missed school because of her mother’s serious illness and was prosecuted for absences, the complaint says.

Michael Harris, senior attorney for the National Center for Youth Law, said he wonders if courts have grown accustomed to the flow of cash.

“Over and over again, they were really focused on extracting money from the students or the parents,” he told the Center. “We heard judges many times threaten students or parents with jail time if they did not pay these fines. It was really frightening. If they are under 17, then the judge really doesn't have the authority to put them in jail, but the kids don’t know that.”

The complaint is filed with the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Equal Education Opportunities Section.  The complaint asks that the Justice Department declare the practice of prosecuting truancy as a crime as unconstitutional.

It also asks that schools be required to exhaust school-based and community-based intervention programs to deal with unexcused absences and turn to courts only as a last resort.

The complaint asks that federal officials require that school districts direct teachers and administrators to consider reasonable explanations for class tardiness and absences, and modify polices to ensure that disability-related absences are properly excused.