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The truancy trap: How Texas punishes kids for skipping school

In Texas, the volume of kids that are sent to criminal court for skipping school is now a part of a DOJ investigation

For more coverage on truancy in Texas, explore Al Jazeera America’s three-part series all this week. 

HOUSTON – Christian Deleon says he tries to listen to “positive” music when he rolls out of bed in the morning to motivate himself to attend high school.

The 15-year-old is a freshman in the South Houston area, but he has skipped so many school days this year that he’s worried he’ll have to repeat ninth grade.

On a recent Friday morning before leaving home for class, he blasted an upbeat Marvin Gaye classic from his cell phone speaker while he sat on the couch, bopping his head quietly in the darkness. This was actually a good day for Deleon, whose mother says he suffers from depression and ADHD. That Friday, he went to school and stayed for the whole day.

Deleon is among tens of thousands of Texas children – nearly 100,000 during the 2014 fiscal year alone, according to the state Supreme Court – forced to go to adult criminal court for missing school 10 or more times during a six-month span.

In Texas, truancy is a Class C misdemeanor that carries a possible $500 fine and the threat of jail time if fines go unpaid when a child turns 17. The law has captured the attention of advocacy group Texas Appleseed, whose research found disabled, poor, and black and Latino students are most often sent to truancy court. The Department of Justice is also now investigating whether accused children receive due process in the state’s largest truancy court system, Dallas County.   

Christian Deleon
America Tonight

Deleon’s mother, Diana Garcia, works two jobs and says the fines have piled up for years.  One of her son’s first court cases resulted in fines and fees totaling $343. The single mother said she has already paid more than $1,000 since 2012 for her son’s absences, but the fines and the trips to court don’t seem to be helping her son.

“I thought he would…learn a lesson from that, but it didn’t help anything because he wasn’t paying the fines; I was,” she said. “Was I going to pay my mortgage or am I going to pay this? It was really hard.”

She said she often drops her son off at school, but convincing him to stay throughout the day is difficult. 

“I’ve tried being supportive. I’ve talked to the teachers and I’ve given him hope,” she said.  “I’ve explained that we need to work out a plan to get him caught up.”

Though he’s enthusiastic about attending school the night before, Deleon says that motivation is lost the next morning.

“Then, soon as I wake up, there’s just something tempting me to stay home,” the teen said.

Currently, the Texas legislature is discussing a bill that could decriminalize truancy.

But with the state’s graduation rate at 88 percent, one of the highest in the nation, some argue putting kids through the criminal justice system means Texas is doing something right.

Judge Wayne Mack, a justice of the peace in Montgomery County, said the process is working in his courtroom, but that he has never imposed hefty fines or caused a teen to go to jail. He also offers community service as an option for children in lieu of fines.

“[Sending a child to court] is a last resort,” Mack said. “In our court, it means that the school…has exhausted all their opportunities to correct the problem. And now they’re coming for me and we’re going to drill down on what the issue is.” 

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