A longstanding Texas law, that has sent approximately 100,000 students to criminal court each year for missing school, is now becoming decriminalized according to the New York Times. That longstanding law is truancy (i.e. skipping school).
Shooting Hooky & Skippin’ School
Truancy, or unauthorized absence from school, is something that many of us have done some time or another during our formative years, but is now an item of attention as of recent changes in the law.
Texas and Wyoming are the only states where truancy cases can be tried against minors, with Texas having a separate truancy court system altogether.
Failure to Attend School
Until recently, failure to attend school (FTAS) charges in Texas were classified in the Texas Criminal Code § 45.054 as a juvenile Class C Misdemeanor with fines of up to $500, a term in jail, or both, along with compulsory court costs of $80. According to reports from the National Center for Youth Law;
“Texas adult courts pursued about 113,000 truancy cases against Texas children aged 12 to 17 in 2012, more than double the number of truancy cases prosecuted the other 49 states combined.”
Criticism of Laws
These draconian laws against minors was severely criticized during active campaigns from organizations like the Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas, and the National Center for Youth Law.
A complaint was filed with the U.S. Department of Justice in 2003 targeting school districts in Dallas, Garland, Mesquite and Richardson, demanding legal reforms for this blatant violation of Constitutional Rights.
The lawsuit condemned the absurdity of the current law where students aged as young as 12 could be summoned to court for having three unexcused absences in four weeks or where unpaid fines landed students behind bars after they turn 17.
The Move To Decriminalize Truancy
Matters started shaping up when at least twenty legislative bills to decriminalize truancy were filed by various state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle during the 84th Legislative Session. Ten of which were heard by the House Committee for Juvenile Justice & Family Issues – including HB 1490 by Dan Huberty (R-Houston) and HB 2398 by James White (R-Woodville).
All of these proposals condemned the existing truancy laws of the state, codified in Texas Education Code Sec. 25.085 and Texas Education Code Sec. 25.093.
The Texas Senate also moved forward to decriminalize the school truancy laws through Senate Bill 106 authored by Sen. John Whitmire (D- Houston), chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee. The legislation moved to the House soon afterwards and was passed on a 26-5 vote after lengthy hours of discussion.
Finally, with the signature of Governor Greg Abbott on HB 2398 on June 16, 2015, the bill is soon to go into effect on September 1, 2015. “Criminalizing unauthorized absences at school unnecessarily jeopardizes the futures of our students,” Gov. Abbott said in a statement, explaining he signed HB 2398 as part of his broader mission to boost the state’s education system.
Under the new law, students shall not be fined more than $100 for not completing their sentence. Moreover, charging of fines is now graduated under the new law, and the first offense shall require a fine of only $100 instead of $500. When asked for his reaction, James White commented that the next step was now to work with Texas Education Agency on a guideline for the districts on how to put the bill’s recommendations to use.
It’s good to see progress made in this area. Taking kids who habitually miss school out of the school altogether and putting them in jail simply makes no sense. Texas has plenty of laws on the books and there are plenty of people who need quality legal representation after being wrongfully charged for a criminal offense.
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