Truancy Reforms In Dallas Schools Are Keeping More Students In Class

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Dallas school and county leaders have unveiled truancy reforms aimed at keeping more kids in class.

Leaders issued 24 recommendations. Some need to be approved by state lawmakers, while others can be adopted now by school districts.

Officials say kids are spending too much time in court for minor offenses.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa realized the district had a problem when he learned Dallas truancies amounted to half the cases in the entire state.

“We had a very rigid rule,” Hinojosa said, “that if you didn’t turn in a note from a doctor or parent in three days you were considered truant. Well, the student had a legitimate reason for being out, but we weren’t taking their notes. And you know, some kids, they don’t turn in a note, but that doesn’t make it a criminal issue.”

The Dallas school district has led the state in truancies, with 13,000 a year. Those cases ended up in court, because for years Texas made missing too much school a crime. Last year’s state reforms took most cases out of the courts. As a result, Dallas truancies dropped below 500.

Among other recommendations from county and school leaders? A student in school who misses part of a class, or shows up a few minutes late, for whatever reason, will no longer be counted truant. It’ll be handled at school and not treated as a crime, according to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

“These recommendations will make our courts a more rarely used system of last resort,” Jenkins said.

Allison Brim welcomes all the changes. She’s the education director with parent advocacy group, The Texas Organizing Project. She served on the committee that came up with the recommendations and says criminalizing absenteeism doesn’t educate kids and doesn’t keep most of them in school.

“We heard both Judge Jenkins and Superintendent Hinojosa talk about some of the real struggles that parents and families and students are facing,” Brim said, “which are the cause of why they end up not in school or not in class for a day.”

Brim says students deal daily with events out of their control; pregnancy, financial issues and medical emergencies, even a relative on drugs. Still, she says, those students want to go to school.

This story originally appeared 11/29/2016 on KERA News.

How do we get kids who skip class out of court and back in school? Dallas County has some ideas

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Dallas County needs a balance of consistency and flexibility to get kids who skip school back in class and out of court, officials said at a news conference this morning.

Area leaders outlined two dozen ways to reform truancy efforts so that school districts and courts can help students get on back track by giving authorities more discretion to consider their individual circumstances.

The recommendations include making sure interventions are implemented early, assigning case managers to work with families, giving districts more time to investigate why a student is absent and filing truancy cases with the county’s civil courts only after all other efforts to help children get back in class have been exhausted.

“Students need to be in school,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said. “When they’re not, there will be consequences.”

The recommendations came after nearly a year of work by a committee led by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

Dallas County was long criticized for its heavy-handed approach to truancy. A federal investigation is underway looking into claims that the system treated children unfairly by denying them attorneys and assessing excessive fines.

But the county has been working to change in recent years and ditched many of the most criticized practices. Also, Texas changed state law in 2015 that decriminalized truancy for children, though they could still face civil penalties.

Dallas ISD had about half of the state’s truancy cases at one point, Hinojosa said. So DISD needed “quick wins” to get those numbers down and help get students back in class, he said.

That meant working with the county to clarify what cases were referred. Last year, DISD referred more than 13,000 truancy cases to Dallas County courts. So far this school year, it’s been fewer than 500.

And today’s recommendations go further toward reforming efforts here. Schools would be required to make sure all other interventions were used before turning toward the courts.

“If someone’s not showing up, then we’re going to find some way to find them, get their attention and get them back in school so they can go to school and graduate,” Jenkins said.

All students who do end up facing civil penalties will be assumed indigent for the purposes of assessing court costs. Officials must then look at the family’s ability to pay before determining any fines.

Some recommendations require changes to state law. Jenkins said that as lawmakers prepare for the 2017 session, county leaders are reaching out to the local delegation as well as Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who carried the truancy overhaul bill last session and chairs the Senate’s criminal justice committee.

For example, they want absences defined as students missing full days so that those who skip certain classes can be handled at the campus level.

The law would have to change to allow districts 20 days instead of 10 to refer cases so that school officials have more time find out why students are absent. They also want legislators to excuse parents of an 18-year-old student who does not live at home from being at truancy hearings.

Still, most changes could be done locally without changes to state law, with much of that being a streamlined process across the county with all districts using GRAD court. Currently that truancy court is being used by four area districts and a handful of charter schools while others use various justice of the peace courts.

School districts would have to change their own polices to give students a reasonable amount of time to turn in documentation. Some require such notes within 72 hours, which can be difficult in instances when medical notes need to be replaced.

Allison Brim, an education coordinator for the advocacy group the Texas Organizing Project, said the proposal is a good start in reforming truancy, as research shows that taking kids to court isn’t effective in getting them back in school. Her group often works with parents having trouble getting their children to school who then face financial hardships as a result of mounting legal fees.

Parents were “frustrated with the process and were seeing that it wasn’t working to help get their kids back in school,” said Brim, who was on the committee. “We thought it was a great opportunity to make some changes to the system to make it work better for students and for families.”

This story originally appeared 11/29/2016 in The Dallas Morning News.