This commentary originally appeared in the Midland Reporter-Telegram on May 4, 2015.
Midland ISD has lower rates of student attendance than the average Texas district.
The attendance rate in the 2013-2014 school year was 94.5 percent, compared to the state average, 95.9 percent. 1.4 percent may not seem like a particularly large difference, but considering Midland’s number of enrolled students, that amounts to a difference of 330 students. One hundred percent attendance would involve 1,371 more students.
There are some who have been involved in Midland’s truancy for many years. Judge David Cobos, a justice of the peace in Midland, has seen great fanfare for his admirable efforts to reduce truancy and drop-out rates. Cobos applies a stern approach to truancy, applying fines primarily to the children instead of the parents. His efforts certainly have brought more than one student back into their classrooms.
Unfortunately, research does not suggest that the criminal justice system is the best method of addressing status offenses such as truancy.
A status offense is an action that is criminal because of a quality of the offender, such as age. There are many status offenses for children; breaking curfew, running away, drinking and truancy are just a few. A key factor in the construction of these offenses is that the act itself is not criminal. Instead, the act is criminal because the individual committing it is a juvenile.
Juveniles who are truant first face the school system and, purportedly as a last ditch effort, then the legal system on a Class C misdemeanor. Judges have the ability to issue fees up to $500, to either the parent or the child. If the fees are not paid, an arrest warrant can be issued. Children who fail to show up to school can be jailed, ensuring that they will not show up to school in the future.
Jailing juveniles for truancy, or wrapping families – often troubled families – up in court time after time, are expensive and ineffective means of addressing truancy. Holding juveniles in secure placement in Texas costs taxpayers 134,000 a year, and attaches a host of negative outcomes to a youth such as greater likelihood of increased criminal behavior, exacerbated mental illnesses, increased self harm, and ironically, lower rates of return to school. Chronic truancy is often a symptom of a low-income, unstable home. Pulling parents repeatedly into court and levying fines they may not be able to pay only exacerbates the situation.
There are better responses to truancy. As advocated by Derek Cohen, senior policy analyst at Right on Crime, in his paper “Kids Doing Time for What is Not a Crime,” there are several other options that have limited – if any – involvement of the criminal justice system. Cohen suggests ensuring that truancy laws are not overbroad, covering students who are “engaged in home-schooling or blended learning.” He also prescribes risk-needs assessments to lower the number of juveniles held in secure detention, placing priority on juveniles with previous violent offenses or a high risk of violence in the future. The savings from these changes should be reinvested in programs that address the causes of truancy, perhaps even before it occurs. Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), family therapy, mental health or substance abuse treatment programs all address issues that may cause truancy, without taking the child out of school and into the justice system.
Midland has worked hard in this area, and Cobos is certainly to be commended for his efforts to use electronic monitoring – opposed to detention – as a sanction. This innovation is precisely what Midland children need. Whether it is 330 children, or 1,371, it is better to get them into school than get them into court.
Dianna Muldrow is a research associate with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.