DALLAS — Four Texas school districts violated federal law by not properly evaluating students with disabilities before sending them to court for missing school, a state agency's investigation has found.
Under federal law, districts must identify and evaluate all students with disabilities and provide the appropriate educational support to meet the students' individual needs. The Texas Education Agency's investigation looked at specific student cases in the districts.
Among those included was a student in Pasadena with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression who was charged with truancy but never evaluated for special education services. TEA said the "student's chronic absenteeism was a behavioral problem that warranted some type of intervention other than the filing of truancy complaints."
The districts — Houston, Fort Bend, Pasadena and Clear Creek — have a year to complete corrective actions and could face sanctions if they fail to do so. Sanctions could include a number of actions, including an investigation, assignment of a monitor or withholding funds.
Texas lawmakers in June decided to decriminalize truancy, meaning students as of Sept. 1 are no longer sent to criminal court for missing school. The new law also requires districts to try to get to the bottom of why students are missing school before now sending them to civil court. But advocates from the non-profits say they still have concerns, including that judges could still send truant students into GED programs.
The investigation came after three nonprofits filed a complaint in May against 13 Texas districts alleging truancy courts were being used to push students with disabilities out of school, including by being forced into GED programs. TEA decided to investigate only the four districts for which the complaint included specific student examples. One district, Galena Park, wasn't reviewed because it revised its policies.
"Schools do not consider special education interventions around attendance nearly as often as they should," said Dustin Rynders, an attorney for Disability Rights Texas, which filed the complaint along with the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed.
Rynders said the students cited in the complaint "in one way or another had been forced out of school or were at risk for being forced out of school."
Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said they hope the findings will ensure other districts realize they have obligations under federal law before using the truancy process for identified special education students or those whose absences could be related to a disability. She says they'll "monitor the way that all this plays out, particularly since the law has changed so drastically on truancy prosecutions."
The Houston Independent School District said Thursday that it was "taking the necessary steps to address the findings," while Fort Bend Independent School District said they'll work with TEA "to demonstrate our commitment to serving all students." The Clear Creek Independent School District is asking TEA to reconsider its decision.
The Pasadena Independent School District said they've submitted their corrective action plan to TEA, which has accepted it. The district also said the student who was the subject of the allegations is no longer in their district but they've retested the student and are awaiting the results.
The advocacy groups this week released the reports, which don't name the students. TEA declined to release the reports for the four investigations or to comment on them, citing student privacy laws and special education-related confidentiality issues.
TEA declined to investigate districts for which the complaint only provided data on special education students ordered into GED programs which they didn't pass.