In Dallas County, Texas, students as young as 12 face criminal charges and arrest for “truancy” via an electronic system that automatically “pushes” cases to courts based on a student’s attendance record, according to a complaint filed with the Department of Justice. These students are required to represent themselves in these proceedings, and are not permitted the assistance of an attorney, advocate, or even their own parents, meaning they are “almost guaranteed a conviction and all the attendant consequences that follow,” the complaint says. Statewide, Texas changed its policy in 2001 to penalize disciplinary violations like truancy through the adult criminal court system, causing a “host of harms to children,” who are then funneled away from school and into the criminal justice system. But in Dallas County, the harms are particularly acute, as students are regularly charged with “truancy” for mere tardiness, absence due to medical problems, a critically ill parent, and school-imposed suspension. The complaint by several public interest organizations paints a picture of a “byzantine legal process resulting in increasingly punitive measures including arrest, handcuffing, and threats of jail time and detention.” Some of these conditions include:
- Youth are coerced and cajoled into pleading “guilty,” even when they have valid excuses for school absences.
- Families already facing economic hardship are assessed high fines and court costs, with additional fees added each month that they are unable to pay in full.
- Children who miss a truancy court hearing are arrested at school, put into a police car, brought into the courtroom in handcuffs, and then charged an additional $50 to cover the arrest warrant fee.
- Youth who fail to fully comply with truancy court orders are arrested in court, handcuffed, and transferred without due process to the “Truancy Enforcement Center,” an arm of the county’s juvenile system, where they may face detention.
- Youth may be jailed once they turn 17 if they have not paid their fines and costs in full.
- Students are routinely threatened with jail time even before they are old enough under Texas law to be subjected to this punishment.
Parents and students interviewed by investigative outlet ProPublica said “enforcement of the program has turned school grounds into something like a police state, with guards rounding up students during ‘tardy sweeps,’ suspending them, then marking their absences as unexcused and reporting them to truancy court.”
Student discipline has been subject to increasing criminalization nationwide, in what is know as the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which is applied disproportionately to minority students, and gives them an early introduction to the criminal justice system. As the complaint describes it, “Students as young as twelve years old are subjected to an adult criminal court process despite being charged with a status offense, a ‘crime’ only by virtue of the fact that it was committed by a child.” In Dallas County, the harm is exacerbated by the utter lack of required due process accompanying these allegations, according to the complaint. Not only are these students deprived of any representation; the county relies upon a computer to file charges without any determination by a human being that there is probable cause to believe these students violated the law.