Last ditch effort

At 7:50 a.m. on a recent Tuesday, the narrow benches in Municipal Appearance Courtroom 1 B begin to fill with sleepy-eyed teens and their parents. “It’s not too bad today,” says Norma Morales-Arias, administrator for Municipal Court Presiding Judge John Bull. “These numbers aren’t as high as we expected. There’s maybe 100 cases on the docket today.”

For Judge Bull, addressing truancy issues now may prevent some of the juvenile-crime cases he frequently hears. “Most kids I have in juvenile court have attendance issues,” he says between dockets on Tuesday. Early this year he began working on a plan to get the municipal court involved in managing hundreds of truancy cases filed annually by the San Antonio and Northside independent school districts, two of Bexar County’s largest. Many of the cases he has heard this summer originated as far back as January, and include not just the original three unexcused absences in four weeks or 10 in six months that state law prosecutes as “failure to attend school,” but now include 60, 70, or even 90 truancies.

 By 8:20 a.m., more than 25 defendants wait to appear before the judge, a number that swells throughout the morning. Their explanations for dozens of unexcused absences range from not wanting to get up in the morning to being homeless. Parents are not exempt; they can receive fines for “contributing to truancy.” Judge Bull talks as tough to parents as he does to the minors in his court. “Who is running your household?” he asks one mother who says she simply can’t force her teenage daughter to go to school. “You or your 14-year-old?”

Some kids, like a stocky, soft-spoken 16-year-old, got gamed by the system, instead of the other way around. The young man completed ninth grade at Burbank High School in the spring, but came to court with 34 unexcused absences. He tells the judge they stem from his effort in January to re-enroll in Burbank after getting kicked out of charter school San Antonio CAN! for fighting. “It took a long time” for his Spanish-speaking mother to attend the necessary meetings with school officials, he explains. As they waited, the boy sat at home. After nearly a month, Burbank finally allowed him to return. The boy and his mother did not receive a truancy notice, which counted his non-enrolled days as unexcused absences pursuant with state code, until the spring semester ended in May. “I’m not going to charge you with a crime,” says Judge Bull, before giving him a relatively light load of 24 hours of community service and $100 fine each for the son and his mother, plus instructions to report back in early October with proof that he has been attending school.     

Since 1995, the state education code has allowed school districts to use either the municipal court or the Justice of the Peace system to prosecute the class C misdemeanor of failure to attend school. In Bexar County, most first-time truancy offenders receive deferred disposition. Their probation often includes a court fee or fine, plus community service for the juvenile, and a requirement to stay clear of any school discipline or criminal issues. Truants who violate the terms of their probation can be booted to the juvenile court system for delinquent conduct, where $500 fines and time at the juvenile detention center can be levied.

Attendance, apparently, is an issue too important to be left to the schools. It’s not uncommon for truancy to be addressed by the courts throughout the U.S. Not only are kids who are not attending school more likely to commit or be the victims of serious crimes, there is also a direct link between chronic poor school attendance and failure to graduate high school.

“Truancy is almost like a prerequisite to dropping out,” says one attendance monitor for the San Antonio ISD. National studies estimate that between one-quarter and one-third of students who enroll in high school leave without a degree. The U.S. Department of Education cites truancy as a primary risk factor in dropping out. A 2005 Department of Justice study titled “The Legal and Economic Implications of Truancy” found that, given truancy’s strong link to dropping out, a truant could cost hundreds of thousands in social services (annually, dropouts make an average of nearly $10,000 less than high-school graduates, a gap that widens with graduates’ continued education), and are eight times more likely to be incarcerated for a crime later in life than their graduated peers.

In Texas, plans to improve the high-school graduation rate have become a major component of both gubernatorial candidates’ platforms. Earlier in the month, Democratic opponent Bill White slammed Republican incumbent Rick Perry’s assertion that the state’s average drop-out rate is closer to 10 percent, as tallied by the Texas Education Agency, than the near 30 percent independent organizations report. White used the opportunity to unroll a five-point education plan, which recommends “treating it as an emergency when students do not return to school,” and using home visits, tutoring, and summer school to re-engage students. Perry countered two days later with a suggestion that the state offer businesses tax credits if they allow employees two hours a week off to work toward attaining a GED or high-school diploma, and drop-outs’ driver’s licenses unless they pursue a GED.

Bexar County, in particular, has a drop-out rate large enough to startle both Republicans and Democrats. According to a study by the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association, in 2008-’09, Bexar County had an almost 40-percent attrition rate — the rate at which schools lose students prior to graduation. Out of 257 Texas counties, Bexar County ties for the eighth highest attrition rate; of Texas’ 10 largest counties, Bexar has the second-highest attrition rate, outpaced only by Hidalgo, a border county with half as many residents.

On paper, most of Bexar County’s 15 districts have an attendance process to remedy unexcused absences before they become truancy, or permanent absence, whether it’s Alamo Heights’ automated phone call to parents when an unexcused absence is recorded, or a mailed letter from SAISD after three such absences. “Basically, interventions begin at the campus level,” said Vicky Sullivan, the new director of Pupil Personnel for Northside ISD. “The family receives an attendance warning notice. An administrator visits with student and parents to problem-solve to get kids there on time. Parent can even be given a written strategy `to stop truancy`. Frankly, so many of them can get fixed at that stage.”

Though both districts view the court as the last resort in dealing with unexcused absences, this past school year Northside filed 2,306 truancy petitions and SAISD filed 6,275, numbers which include filings against parents for contributing to truancy and against repeat offenders. The expectation is that the court will either scare the kids and parents into taking school more seriously, or at least mandate that they enroll in a GED program, effectively taking care of the schools’ problem for them.

But throughout the state, the JP system appears ill-equipped to handle truancy cases. Truancies are but a small part of a typical Justice of the Peace caseload, which includes all crimes punishable by fine only, as well as small claims up to $10,000. Unlike the many ticket issues JPs handle, truancy petitions require an in-person hearing and often subsequent “show-cause” hearings to prove a student is completing the probation terms. A flood of truancy cases has overwhelmed the sole Waco JP who has agreed to hear them regularly in that county, causing the city to consider hiring more security guards specifically for his court. According to a June 26 story in the Abilene Reporter News, truancy officers there essentially gave up on writing truancy tickets because no JP or municipal judge was able to deal with them.

Locally, the 600-case backlog reported this year by Northside ISD, and the few hundred from SAISD that remained un-adjudicated at the close of the ’09-’10 school year, are a real whodunnit. Last December, after he agreed to help clear truancy cases for Northside and SAISD, Judge Bull hired Gabe Quintanilla, part-time judge and former North East ISD trustee, to develop a more effective method of combating truancy. As the new juvenile case manager administrator, the first question Quintanilla asked proved to be the million-dollar one: “Why is it that students can rack up such an incredible number of absences before the system kicks in?”

Ask sources inside the school district like Sullivan, and they’ll say, “That’s a very good question,” and punt to the JPs. Ask a Justice of the Peace like Bill Donovan in Precinct 2, and he’ll tell you it’s not unusual to receive 50 truancy petitions at once, a process called “batching,” filed right up until summer recess. “In the past, when they filed in April or May, you’re not getting them heard by the end of the school year,” Donovan said. Instead of trying to wade through hundreds of cases while many school-district employees are also on summer break, the JP courts suspend those cases until the beginning of the next school year.

Donovan says batching is at least partially responsible for JPs taking as long as a month to hear a filed truancy petition. “Sometimes they’ll hold off on filing on these kids until they have 60-70 `unexcused absences`,” he said. This would seem to be in flagrant violation of the state Education Code, which mandates districts file a truancy petition with a court within 10 days of the 10th reported absence. However, there is a shorter time limit, three absences within four weeks, that has no such filing requirement. “You may have a kid who misses 80 days, and they file for nine,” said Donovan. Even if school districts did violate the education code and missed the deadline to file against truant students, they receive no sanction in Texas. In a 2007 opinion, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott confirmed, “other than requiring a court to dismiss the complaint or referral, the Education Code imposes no penalties on a school district that fails to file a complaint or referral within 10 school days of the student’s 10th unexcused absence.”

While none of the San Antonio school district representatives the Current interviewed admitted to intentionally batching or delaying filings, local sources familiar with the process said administrative logjams occur because so few personnel are dedicated solely to district attendance.

“Auditors act somewhere between administrator, counselor, and a social worker,” said Melissa Ramos, coordinator for student attendance auditors at SAISD. There are 14 people on her staff, four of whom specifically monitor kids at risk of dropping out, leaving 10 to look for truancy cases among the 55,275 students enrolled in SAISD. One source within SAISD acknowledged, “It’s not very large for a district that has as many problems as SAISD, and the courts can only do so much.” Indeed, the funding for Ramos’s department comes out of the SAISD’s social-worker services expenditures, which accounted for less than half of one percent of the entire SAISD budget for ’09-’10. At Northside, Sullivan has nine attendance officers for 91,578 students. But, she notes, schools in her district also have one administrator on each campus who handles attendance issues.

Delays and backlogs in these types of cases are unacceptable to Quintanilla, who describes fixing the truancy issue here as his passion. “Truancies are time-sensitive,” is his mantra. Not only do most students with several unexcused absences fall behind academically, truancy is often an indicator of other deep-seated issues, some of which the court or school can at least begin to address by coordinating appropriate community resources. “These kids might need counseling, they might need tutoring, they might be suffering abuse, they might be pregnant,” says Quintanilla. Moreover, “It’s very difficult to effect change when a kid comes in with 90 absences and it’s the middle of the summer.”

Enter Clarissa Chavarria, the new municipal court judge who, along with Judge Bull, will focus almost solely on juvenile and truancy cases. Until last week, Judge Chavarria was a prosecutor for the City Attorney’s office with a unique interest in school-attendance issues. “My parents, my sister, my husband, they’re all educators,” Chavarria said shortly before her swearing-in ceremony last Friday. “It’s something I grew up with, and I understand there’s a great need to handle these `truancy` cases differently.”

Chavarria was hired at the behest of Judge Bull, who filled an open municipal judgeship to “create” the position. District 7 Councilman Justin Rodriguez helped ensure funding through the City in May. A former prosecutor with the District Attorney’s juvenile division, Rodriguez says, “I would see these cases escalate; by the time they got to a district court it was for misdemeanor or even felonies, but a lot of time you could trace it back to skipping school.”

A July 16 letter sent to several administrators at SAISD, Northside ISD and North East ISD and signed by Judge Bull, Morales-Arias, and Municipal Court Clerk Fred P. Garcia announced the new five-days-a-week, year-round plan. It promises to hear cases within 14 days once the court receives the truancy petition. “The only requirement is that cases are filed within the 10 days prescribed by the Texas Education Code and not be ‘batch filed,’” the letter warns.

There is even talk of a full-scale truancy court, modeled after one Fort Worth founded in 2000. Quintanilla spent a week in Fort Worth observing the program in early 2010, and produced a 200-plus page report on the Comprehensive Truancy Program, which is staffed by one judge, two caseworkers, and two bailiffs. Fort Worth ISD has reduced its truancy numbers significantly, and, according to the IDRA report, Tarrant County reported a 30-percent attrition rate for the same year Bexar County reported 39 percent. “This is the early stages of an entirely new protocol,” Quintanilla says of plans to revamp Bexar County’s handling of truancy cases.

Yet, even Fort Worth’s award-winning truancy-prevention program has  detractors. Faced with an alarming deficit, Fort Worth ISD school-board trustees recently mulled cutting the court. “We’ve been playing this game for a long time, and nothing happens,” trustee Juan Rangel told Eva-Maria Ayala, education reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in May. According to Rangel, students still skip class at an unacceptable rate and parents are less than receptive to the court’s recommended home and lifestyle adjustments. “I don’t think it’s done us any good.”

Criminalizing non-attendance places the expectation of student reform on the courts, not the schools. In an April Texas Observer story about prosecuting adults for failure to attend school, IDRA Policy Director Albert Cortez said of utilizing the court system, “It’s an interesting approach because it means the schools don’t have to do anything differently.” While the court system should be part of a successful truancy intervention program, it should be but one branch of a tree of support for students and their families, says Joanna Heilbrunn, senior researcher and policy analyst for the National Center for School Engagement. Heilbrunn, who evaluates truancy-reduction programs, adds, “Hopefully schools are not using the courts before exhausting every other avenue.” She recommends schools implement an extensive and potentially expensive group of attendance monitors to make live calls to parents as soon as one unexcused absence has been recorded. From there, schools and teachers should enthusiastically welcome students back to class, help them catch up academically, and utilize a network of mental-health providers, physical health clinics, advocates, and social workers to address the underlying causes of truancy before filing cases with the court system.

For now, Judge Bull is willing to bear the burden. “The school districts have the same budget problems as the city and the county,” he says. His main concern is getting cases heard quickly and bringing different local government entities to the table. “We need to address it as a community problem.”

Chip Haass, former councilman and a member of the Municipal Court Oversight Committee that recommended hiring Chavarria, said their intent is to create a streamlined, successful truancy program and turn it back over to the districts to implement. He hopes that by that point the truancy numbers will be greatly reduced. “Obviously we want to provide the service,” Haass says, “but we want to improve the situation, too.” •

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