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SAN ANTONIO — The eighth-grader in Judge Linda Conley’s courtroom is like many of the roughly 100,000 children in Texas who face truancy charges every year. His mother works nights, so he’s staying up late, not getting to school on time and has accumulated enough unexcused absences to land himself in court. He has few academic ambitions: “I want to play basketball,” he says. His mother worries that he’s doing drugs, as does the building manager at the boy’s apartment, a school district official reports. Conley is stern. “This situation, if we don’t get this under control, it’s going to get bigger.”
If this young man had been going to school in Dallas or Houston or most other cities in Texas, he would face an adult criminal conviction for truancy and a fine. His mother would likely get little help in dealing with whatever is keeping him out of school. But because he goes to school in San Antonio, what happens next is different. Instead of issuing a fine, the judge talks to the mother about how she can get more involved at school, so she has a better idea of what her son is doing all day. “When the child knows that you don’t know, they are all over you,” Conley says. She also recommends a long list of programs, all free, from drug intervention to an initiative that introduces kids to college. “We want them to start thinking about their goals,” so they have a reason to stay in school, says Alma Lozano, the prosecutor on this case. “We try to decriminalize within the parameters of the law.”
Over the last five years, while other cities in Texas have come under intense scrutiny for truancy policies that subject children as young as 12 to adult criminal charges, and turn their convictions into a revenue stream without having much effect on attendance rates, San Antonio has been in the middle of a bold experiment to find a better way. Working with the city government and school districts, the municipal court in this booming, young, largely Latino metropolis has changed its truancy policies to keep kids out of court. Students are the focus of intense intervention efforts aimed at addressing the root cases of their absences. For those who do end up in court, fines are rare. Early results are promising: Truancy filings in San Antonio’s biggest school district have fallen from 5,808 in 2010 to 2,715 this year, according to municipal court officials, while attendance rates in the district are rising steadily, even as the district adds 2,500 students a year.
The city’s success in reducing truancy cases is important to the broader push to reform truancy in Texas, says Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a social-justice advocacy group that has been leading the state’s reform effort. On May 30, the Texas legislature passed a bill that would make truancy a civil, rather than a criminal, offense statewide, and mandates many of the changes already in place in San Antonio. “They’ve really tried to emphasize in San Antonio what we’re hoping the bill will help other school districts to emphasize, which is prevention and intervention so that kids don’t end up in the court system,” says Fowler. “San Antonio’s been a leader in showing the rest of the state that that can be done.”
The maverick behind San Antonio’s truancy program is Judge John Bull. A fifth-generation San Antonian whose ancestors started as saloonkeepers and then moved into the auto-parts business, Bull took office as the presiding judge in the municipal court in 2004. He was alarmed by the number of truancy cases clogging his court’s dockets and frustrated with the inconsistent criteria for filing cases in the city’s 17 independent school districts. One of San Antonio’s school districts filed more than 12,000 truancy cases in 2012, representing 23 percent of its enrollment, the highest ratio among the state’s largest school districts (PDF, page 52). Many of the city’s cases, Bull says, should never have been in court, either because of the family’s circumstances or because of small errors, such as children whose excuses were not recorded by school officials. Instead of hearing misdemeanor assault or theft cases, Bull says he was trying to figure out whether parents had sent in messages excusing their child’s absences to the teachers on time. “It’s a tremendous waste, from a judicial economy standpoint,” he says. “You’re not a judge anymore. You’re an attendance officer, trying to sort out notes.”
Bull found an ally in Brian Woods, a longtime friend and the superintendent of Northside Independent School District, by far the largest in San Antonio. “Up until four or five years ago, our approach to truancy was pretty traditional and probably what you see today in most places in the state,” Woods says. But despite the huge number of cases filed, despite the fines and tough talk from judges, Northside wasn’t able to get its attendance rates to budge. In Texas, as in many other states, attendance is a critical factor in determining funds allocated from the state.
In 2010, Woods and Bull informally agreed that Northside would send all of its cases through Bull’s municipal court, rather than allow schools to send cases to various justice of the peace courts (JPs) in surrounding areas. At the same time, Woods says, the district went through a difficult internal process to examine what officials could do to address root causes of truancy rather than just punish students.
Those causes are complex, according to Woods, but most are related to poverty. About 50 percent of Northside’s students are economically disadvantaged, and financial struggles often keep children out of school. For example, Woods says, many teenagers miss school to care for younger siblings, or stay up late because they are unsupervised in the evenings when both parents are on the job. Others are missing class because they’re working themselves. “If everybody in the household’s working just to put food on the table, can we get them hooked up with the food bank to ease that pressure?” Woods says. “So that the 14-year-old doesn’t have to work so many hours so that he’s not getting home at 2 o’clock in the morning and then we’re asking them to be at school at 6 in the morning.”
In the very first year, Northside moved the needle: its attendance rate rose from 95.3 percent in 2010-11 to 95.6 percent the following year. It may seem small, but it was significant: with nearly 103,000 students in the district, a one-percentage-point increase in attendance can mean millions of dollars in funding.
Encouraged by that initial success, Bull hoped to spread that approach to other courts and other school districts. To do that, he hired Victor Vinton, a former football coach with 35 years of experience as a teacher, school principal and administrator, bringing him out of retirement to head the truancy and juvenile division for the city of San Antonio. Vinton began in 2012 with five case managers, based at schools and employed by the city, reporting to him. “We want to know why [the kids are] not in school,” he says. “That’s pretty much the basis of what we’re trying to do here in San Antonio.”
Reducing the number of truancy cases proved to be more difficult. Vinton and Bull went to the justice of the peace courts around San Antonio — more than 70 percent of the truancy cases in Texas in fiscal year 2014 were filed in these local county courts, heard by elected judges who are not required to have any legal training. Statewide, JP courts in Texas accounted for $11.3 million of the $16.1 million in fines and court assessed for truancy last year. Vinton asked the JP’s whether they would be willing to waive jurisdiction for all truancy cases to the municipal court, where they could be screened and then sent to the JP’s for adjudication, but Vinton believes they were unwilling to risk losing the revenue. “They turned me down,” Vinton says. “It was a financial thing.”
So Bull and Vinton did a political end-run around the JP’s, using their allies in the city government and in the state legislature, including then-Mayor Julian Castro. And in 2013, the Texas state legislature passed a law allowing any city in Texas with a population of more than 1.5 million and more than 15 school districts (a law that, effectively, applied only to San Antonio) to form a committee to decide how it would handle truancy cases. Castro named a task force, which recommended consolidating all cases through the municipal court. Beginning in April 2014, a $5 surcharge on traffic tickets was used to fund the juvenile case management program run by Vinton through Bull’s court.
Vinton now has 11 case managers and 5 aides, who check up on students and connect them with services such as a trafficking prevention program aimed at runaway or at-risk girls. There are subtler interventions, too, like “parent shadowing,” in which parents spend a day with their child at school — going to class, meeting teachers, eating lunch. A parent who is a recent immigrant or didn’t complete school doesn’t have the relationships with teachers that many middle-class parents take for granted, says Alicia Trujillo, senior juvenile court case manager. “I want her to feel empowered,” Trujillo says. “You’re paying taxes to that school. You have a right to be there.”
Perhaps more important are the cases that never get to court. Like Dallas and Fort Bend counties, Northside also uses automated attendance software, but instead of allowing it to become a "galloping horse," as Vinton puts it, filing cases against children without any human supervision, the district has customized the software to alert school officials when students need help. A court case is filed only if other efforts have failed. “It takes a minimum of two people at two different levels to sign off before a case can be filed,” Woods says.
The court, too, does its best to keep children out of court. Bull, Vinton and another judge who handles truancy cases, Clarissa Chavarria, hold regular “parent intervention forums” for children who have accumulated enough unexcused absences to be considered truant. There, parents and children can sign a contract with the court, which allows them to avoid a truancy charge if they abide by its terms — usually, to avoid more absences. The 5,730 contracts that have been successfully completed so far this year represent 5,730 children who would otherwise be in court. “The success of the program is not determined by how many cases we filed,” Bull says. “The success of the program is how many cases we averted from being filed.” He adds: “We want to block the doors to the courthouse.”
Those behavior contracts, as well as the implementation of county-wide uniform truancy policies and counseling or other assistance before a students gets to court are all part of the truancy reform bill passed by Texas on May 30. With broad bipartisan support, Governor Greg Abbott is expected to sign it into law by June 21.