News recently broke that the Fort Bend Independent School District just outside of Houston has been incarcerating truant students. In Texas, students are forced to pay fines if they miss 10 or more days of school within a six-month period. Most of these students are of low-income families. When they fail to pay, they are taken into custody. These students in turn miss even more school once in custody, and some are kicked out of school because of the added absence.
Over a thousand teenagers have been incarcerated for truancy related charges in the past three years within the Fort Bend school district. Because of the recent revelation, the school district announced it will stop sending truant students to court while a review of the attendance policies takes place.
In addition to this questionable practice, the advocacy group Texas Appleseed discovered that black and Hispanic students were disproportionately sent to court for truancy charges.
Serena Vela, an 11th grader, was jailed for nine days for failure to pay truancy charges. She accumulated more than $2,700, and was unable to pay the fines. Once freed, she was kicked out of school for her added absences. A year and a half later, she works at a pizza place and still does not have her high school diploma. She is just one example of the harmful effects this attendance process has on students.
John Payton’s Strict Oversight of Truancy Cases
Judge John Payton oversees about 80 percent of truancy cases in Collin County. On average, he sends 45 to 50 students to adult jail each year. He claims sending students to jail is a wakeup call for them and will motivate them to stay in school. But if students are being kicked out for missing even more school because of incarceration, how is this helping them?
Payton himself he hasn’t even earned his bachelor’s degree, yet he is in charge of almost all attendance cases in Collin County. He claims that he keeps students under the age of 17 away from felons when he sends them to jail, but jail officials have said this isn’t necessarily the case. He also jailed a student for 11 days whose Facebook page revealed his posts about suffering from depressing, suicide thoughts, and pain. This student spent the whole 11 days in solitary confinement.
Due Process Violations
In Texas, an accumulation of absences is a class C misdemeanor. The charges are held before a “justice of the peace” and municipal courts. The judges in these cases are not required to have a law degree. Buzzfeed News interviewed over 20 families whose child was sent to jail under truancy charges. Not one had a lawyer, directly denying their basic right to due process. Every incarceration of a student without proper due process is unlawful.