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FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas — This suburb of Houston advertises its family-friendly environment and is lauded by demographers as a symbol of “the new America,” where black, Latino, Asian and white students are represented in similar numbers. Another, less-savory fact is invisible: racial disparity in the cases of truancy filed against students. According to its recent report on the criminalization of truancy in Texas, the social-justice-advocacy group Texas Appleseed found that these cases are disproportionately filed against minority students — and Fort Bend is the worst offender among large school districts. Here, African-Americans are the focus of more than half of truancy cases, although they make up only 29 percent of the student population.
Criticism of Fort Bend’s truancy system has already led to a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students. In late April, Fort Bend suspended new truancy filings indefinitely. In Texas, one of two states in the country that treats missing school as an adult criminal offense, children as young as 12 can face judges without counsel or parental intervention and can be put behind bars for unpaid fines or for being in contempt for missing court dates. As the state considers an overhaul of its truancy laws, Fort Bend’s school officials, lawmakers and families are doing some soul-searching to understand why so many of their African-American and Hispanic children are being pulled into truancy court and how to change that.
The Fort Bend County Truancy Court sits in Sugar Land, the fastest growing part of the county, less than a mile from the site of a former Imperial Sugar factory that gives the city its name. Some of Fort Bend’s earliest settlers established sugarcane and cotton plantations in the 1820s; a refinery followed in 1907. Thousands of acres around the sugar factory were turned into farmland, planted with everything from melons and cabbage to rice and bananas. As new waves of settlers arrived in the late 20th century — drawn first by jobs in Houston’s oil industry, then the health-care and technology sectors — that farmland was turned over to developers, who built homes for them.
The reputation of Fort Bend’s schools is a huge draw for families. Several of the local high schools are regularly featured in the national rankings of top performers. But that success has obscured vast inequities in the district; Some schools are struggling to meet minimum academic standards while others shine. “The data can look pretty good when you generalize it and you put all students and all schools together,” says Charles Dupre, superintendent of the Fort Bend Independent School District. “But there are some students who are not doing well at all.”
There is a similar inequity in truancy. There are 12 high schools in the district, and students at three of them — Willowridge, Hightower and Thurgood Marshall, all predominantly African-American — account for 41 percent of the district’s truancy complaints.
Truancy cases are concentrated in predominantly black high schools
Hightower, Thurgood Marshall and Willowridge have more truancy cases than any other schools in Fort Bend. At the same time, the school's populations are disproportionately black and Latino compared with the rest of the school district.
Source: Fort Bend school district, race and ethnicity report, spring 2015.
Fort Bend’s decision to vigorously pursue those cases saddles a disproportionate number of the county’s black children with a criminal record. It set up a dedicated truancy court in 2007 to handle the large volume of filings, funded in part with a $240,000 annual grant from the school district, which also pays for a full-time bailiff at the court.
Concerns over the truancy court led Rodney Ellis, a state senator representing parts of Fort Bend, to ask the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate. So far, the agency has not agreed to do so, although it has launched an investigation of Dallas County Truancy Court for due-process violations. Ellis says he was inspired by the DOJ’s report on aggressive policing tactics in Ferguson, Missouri, which were found to disproportionately affect African-Americans. Fort Bend County, he says, needs a similar review. “Race is a part of it,” Ellis tells Al Jazeera America. “When you put that kid in the adult system at that early age, you’re marking them for life.”
Roshanda Davis is an 18-year-old senior at Willowridge High School, one of the Fort Bend schools with chronic attendance problems. Nearly all of the students are black or Latino, and 70 percent are economically disadvantaged. The school has gotten poor ratings from the state education authority in recent years and in 2013 brought in a new principal to try to turn things around. Improving attendance is on the agenda; there is a dedicated attendance officer at the school, and a poster in the hallway tries to motivate students to reach the statewide average of 95 percent attendance. The school’s most recent average was 92 percent, well below the 97 for the county as a whole.
Davis’ absences are part of the problem, but she says she isn’t skipping school. “I was late,” she says, but Willowridge’s strict attendance policies counted several days of arriving late as unexcused absences. That’s how she ended up in Fort Bend County Truancy Court on May 8, negotiating at a Plexiglas window with a prosecutor over her fine for truancy and missed court dates. There was no judge present, so Davis had to enter her plea of no contest on a form, without any judicial oversight. “This one I’ll reduce to $195,” the prosecutor told her. “I’ll drop this other one. You want a month to pay?”
Black students are disproportionately cited for truancy across Texas
In Fort Bend, the racial disparity between truancy charges filed and enrollment is among the highest in the state.
Source: "Class, Not Court", Texas Appleseed, 2015. Data reflects 2012-2013 school year. Note: Northside Independent School District is the largest school district in the San Antonio metropolitan area but is separate from the San Antonio Independent School District.
Her mother, Eulalee, is upset with her daughter, but more upset with the court, which she says is needlessly prosecuting students: “Why they charge her? She graduates in one month.” Eulalee estimates that she has paid nearly $750 in truancy fines over the last three years, a burden on her salary as a home health-care aide. Eulalee doesn’t like the way the court handled her daughter’s case. “He didn’t even ask her nothing. He just come and give her a fine.” But when asked whether she felt minorities were being unfairly targeted, she says she doesn’t know.
It’s difficult to know exactly what’s behind the racial disparity. Dupre believes truancy is part of the broader issue of how teachers and principals discipline students. In a comprehensive review of school data last year, the U.S. Department of Education found that there is a pervasive pattern of punishing African-American children more harshly for the same behavior.
While disproportionality in school discipline is common across the country, Fort Bend’s disparities triggered an investigation by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, which has been reviewing the district’s disciplinary policies since 2012. Dupre was hired as superintendent the following year, in part to address this inequity, but it persists. In the 2013-14 school year, black students made up only 29 percent of the students in Fort Bend but accounted for two-thirds of suspensions, according to a recent analysis of state data by the Houston Chronicle.
“The kinds of disparities for Fort Bend, you see them across all of their disciplinary data, including now truancy referrals,” says Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. “The disparities are really driven by whatever’s going on at the school level in the complaint being filed.”
Asked whether Fort Bend’s teachers might be harder on black students who are late or absent, Dupre said, “I think that could happen. I’m not going to say that’s necessarily racially motivated.” He says he has been trying to lead the district’s principals and teachers to rethink how they discipline students who are struggling, many of whom are poor and part of a racial minority. “It’s going to take some deep conversations,” he says. “Deep discussion about the data, about what strategies work.”
3 Fort Bend high schools contribute 41 percent of truancy cases
In the 2013-14 school year, black students made up only 29 percent of the students in Fort Bend but accounted for two-thirds of suspensions.
Source: Fort Bend school district truancy counts, 2013-2014.
While school officials may be looking for a new approach, the Fort Bend truancy court reflects a deep-seated belief among some in the Texas criminal-justice system that being tough on children is the best way to help them. Nina Schaefer, a judge in the Fort Bend County Truancy Court, says probation officers help connect students with local social services, while she can use criminal sanctions to compel them to go to school, attend tutoring and attend programs offered through the court. If the Texas Legislature moves forward with a bill to decriminalize truancy, eliminating fines and the threat of jail time, she fears that judges’ hands will be tied. “I can’t threaten them [that] I can put them in jail,” she says. “I would never put a child in jail for this, but they don’t know that. Do you know what I’m saying? I have the threat.”
It may seem harsh, but Schaefer believes being tough shows children that Texas is serious about keeping them in school. Without an education, she says, “Then you’re going to be like those poor people on the streets in Baltimore or — what’s that other place? Ferguson.”
In the end, it was not simply the glaring racial disparity but also the threat of legal action that led to the suspension of Fort Bend’s truancy cases. Two years after his own daughter was prosecuted for truancy, a local attorney, Deron Harrington, filed a class-action lawsuit on May 6 on behalf of all students who have gone through the truancy-court system, alleging that the courts did not have proper legal authority to operate. In an email to Harrington on April 27, included as an exhibit in the lawsuit, an attorney for the school district writes, “The District’s suspension of the filing of ALL truancy complaints pending its review should moot your client’s need to file suit against the district.”
A spokeswoman for the school district said the lawsuit wasn't the only motivation. "Several factors led to the decision, including possible legislative action, discussions with the community and a meeting with county truancy officials," she said. "Our goal at Fort Bend ISD is to be a good steward of our children and taxpayer money so we wanted the time to review the policy."
Fort Bend may restart its truancy program in the fall, depending on whether the state legislature’s bill to decriminalize truancy passes. A deeper conversation about race in Fort Bend may take much longer.