Federal civil rights probe targets how Dallas County courts handle truants, disabled children

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DALLAS — A federal civil rights investigation announced Tuesday targets whether Dallas County has been too tough on students who skip school and sometimes end up handcuffed and in court.

The U.S. Justice Department review names Dallas County, focusing on its juvenile courts and due process for truant children, a department statement said. The investigation will include a review of policies, procedures, court documents and statistical data, along with interviews.

Some advocacy groups filed a complaint with the federal department in June 2013 on behalf of seven students, alleging Dallas-area public schools are too harsh with truancy rules.

Dallas County will cooperate fully with the civil investigation, County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

"We remain committed to giving every student their best chance at staying in school and graduating," Jenkins said in a statement. "My office is working collaboratively with reformers to improve the state laws that control the system, provide new protections for disabled students, make expunction of truancy records automatic, and lower fines and penalties."

Currently, students age 12 and older can be ordered to criminal court if they accumulate three unexcused absences in four weeks. Schools must file charges against students with more than 10 unexcused absences in six months. Fines for the charges can be up to $500. Only Texas and Wyoming prosecute truancy in adult courts.

A preliminary Justice Department review indicates Dallas County prosecuted approximately 20,000 failure-to-attend-school cases last year, the federal statement said.

Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit social and economic justice group, has advocated before the Legislature the decriminalization of school truancy and provided evidence and witnesses on which the Justice Department based its decision to investigate, said Deborah Fowler, the group's executive director.

"It shows the concerns of many stakeholders have been validated by the Justice Department," she said.

The review will also focus on whether Dallas County has meaningful access to the judicial process for children with disabilities.

"Ensuring that children's rights under the Constitution and federal law are protected during the court process is a key step to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta. "We hope to work cooperatively with the county in determining whether it has taken steps to ensure that its juvenile and criminal courts fully respect the rights of the children who come before them."

The Dallas Independent School District, the second-largest in Texas with about 160,000 students, did not immediately respond to a message left Tuesday.

Houston has the state's largest public school district, with about 215,000 students.

Lawmakers are considering a slew of bills that would lighten penalties for students who skip school. The bills would decriminalize truancy, require schools to implement progressive sanctions to stop students from becoming truant, automatically expunge truancy charges from Texans' criminal records, prohibit detaining students found in contempt of court on a truancy charge and require dedicated truancy courts to hear such cases.

Supporters say more must be done for the nearly 100,000 Texas schoolchildren who, according to the Legislative Budget Board, were given Class C misdemeanors for unexcused absences in fiscal year 2014. Texas Appleseed is optimistic about change in those truancy laws during this year's Legislature, Fowler said.

Those opposed to the changes said that proactive programs try to intervene before a truancy charge reaches a criminal court. Sometimes, though, the threat of a charge and its fine is necessary in getting children to attend school, they have said.


Associated Press writer Eva Ruth Moravec in Austin contributed to this report.

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