DALLAS – Starting Tuesday, skipping school will no longer be a crime for students.
Until now, Texas had been only one of two states that made truancy a criminal act.
The new law changes the way truants are treated in the court system. No longer will be it a criminal act that sometimes lands kids in handcuffs and even behind bars in some cases.
The change also:
- wipes away all unpaid fines
- orders all active warrants be recalled
- reinstates the driver's license of students who lost them
In Dallas, that will affect 27,000 students.
"It's a school discipline problem," said County Judge Clay Jenkins, who has been heading up the county's efforts to implement the new law. "It's not a criminal problem."
Truancy cases kept the county's courts busy. Last year, the county handled 20,359 cases last fiscal year and 25,339 the fiscal year before that.
The old law required districts to file criminal cases after a student racked up 10 unexcused absences. Now, districts can only file a civil case after the student has 10 or more absences and it's taken specific steps to work with the student, including school-based community service.
The new law limits the circumstances in which a truancy case can be filed. It can't be done when a student's pregnant, in a state foster care program, homeless, or the primary income earlier for the family.
Dallas County is going one step further, by refusing to take cases involving mentally-ill or special-needs students.
"It's going to lead to fewer cases, and ultimately, that can be a good thing," Jenkins said. "It will do away with some of the hardships and some of the higher fines and the criminality of this. The challenge is that we make sure we keep that compliance rate up and it's going to fall on the schools to do a lot of their own interventions now."
Fines in the old system could quickly mount. State law allowed a maximum fine of up to $500 per offense. Dallas County had set a limit of $100 for first-time offenses, but it went up after that.
At the truancy court on Marsh Lane, one North Dallas High School student had come with his mother to pay some of his outstanding fines. He readily acknowledged that he's a repeat offender.
"It's just that I don't really like school," he said, adding that missed in excess of 40 school days last year.
His mother, who didn't speak English, seemed at a loss for what to do with him. He has cost the family thousands in court fines.
Starting Tuesday, they won't have to pay any remaining fines.
There are still penalties in the new system.
Students who fail to comply with court orders can be held in contempt of court, fined up to $100, and have their driver's license suspended. The law also limits court costs to $50, and it's conditioned on the family's ability to pay.
"This does not mean that people who choose not to attend school won't face consequences," Jenkins said.
The new law is keeping County Clerk John Warren busy, too.
His office is handling the 306,000 expunctions that will be needed to comply with the law, as well as the process of filing the paperwork with the Texas Department of Public Safety to get 27,000 driver's licenses reinstated.
"This law isn't just affecting Dallas County," Warren said. "It's all 254 counties. If you assume your driver's license is reinstated tomorrow, that won't be the case."
Parents, however, are not off the hook. They can still face the equivalent of a Class C misdemeanor for failing to send their kids to school.