Advocacy groups file DOJ complaint claiming truancy enforcement at Dallas area districts violates civil rights of disabled and LEP students
According to an Associated Press (AP) report in the San Francisco Chronicle, several organizations have filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) claiming Dallas-area public schools are too harsh in their truancy rules, subjecting students to cruel and unusual punishment by handcuffing them in class, sending them to special adult courts and assessing stiff fines for skipping school. The complaint, filed by Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights of Texas, and the National Center for Youth Law with DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, charges that the Dallas Independent School District (DISD) and the nearby districts in Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson are using “inconsistent and inflexible” attendance polices that violate the civil rights of students with disabilities and limited English proficiency. Dallas ISD is further alleged to have violated the civil rights of pregnant students in prosecuting truancy.
Only Texas and Wyoming prosecute truancy cases in adult courts. The Texas policy stems from 2001, when the Legislature transferred “Failure to Attend School” cases to adult courts. Texas courts prosecuted a whopping 113,000 truancy cases against children ages 12 to 17 in fiscal year 2012, more than double the number of truancy cases prosecuted in all other 49 states combined, but that’s because 48 of those states use juvenile courts for such cases. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, approximately 52,000 truancy cases were filed in the juvenile courts nationwide in 2009, the most recent data available.
Nevertheless, Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, pointed out that Dallas County alone prosecuted more than 36,000 truancy cases last year, nearly three times Harris County, which includes the Houston Independent School District. Dallas County’s truancy courts collected $2.9 million in fines in fiscal year 2012, enough to cover more than half the courts’ $4.2 million operating costs. “There is this kind of perverse incentive to keep the fines high,” Fowler said.
The complaint asks DOJ to declare that prosecuting truancy as a crime is unconstitutional. It also seeks to bar district officials from handcuffing students at school and transporting them to court for truancy hearings. Fowler said filing a federal complaint is less adversarial and time consuming than a traditional lawsuit, noting that the groups want to work with all parties so that Dallas County can change its policies and eventually become a model in Texas. The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has recently worked with school districts to address discrimination complaints in Massachusetts and Florida.
In response to the complaint, DISD said students are treated equitably as it “adheres to all attendance policies set by the state” and that attendance issues are taken “very seriously.”
[Editor’s Note: The DOJ complaint states:
This complaint concerns a particularly harmful aspect of the “school-to-prison pipeline” in Texas – the use of adult criminal courts to prosecute youth for truancy, and the way that school districts’ violations of students’ civil and educational rights directly contribute to this problem. Specifically, this complaint focuses on the Dallas County truancy courts and the four school districts – Dallas, Garland, Mesquite, and Richardson Independent School Districts (“ISDs”) – that funnel students into this court system. The complaint alleges violations of rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In March 2013, Legal Clips summarized an AP article in The Washington Post reporting that DOJ had reached a deal with the Meridian Public School District to end harsh disciplinary practices in which black students face harsher punishment than whites for similar misbehavior. The agreement comes after a lengthy federal investigation that found that black public school students in Meridian are five times more likely than whites to be suspended from classes and often got longer suspensions for comparable misbehavior.
In February, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Palm Beach Post reporting that DOJ had finalized a settlement with the Palm Beach County School District (PBCSD) over discipline and enrollment practices. The agreement addresses two complaints alleging discrimination in how PBCSD disciplines students who struggle to speak English, and how it handles registration and enrollment for undocumented immigrants.]