Under new truancy law kids get a fresh start

"It's going to be the order of the court that all of these records are expunged and that these kids are given a second shot at life, isn't that amazing?"

It's the second shot that Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell is giving to 2,208 current and former Williamson County Students.

Judge Gravell dismissed the truancy records on Thursday afternoon. Three of the cases were nearly two decades old. The order comes days after a new law went into effect making skipping school a civil matter, not a criminal one. 

It was an idea that Gravell was against when FOX 7 first interviewed him in November.

"I felt like what we were doing here was working," he said of the steps his court took to help his kids stay in school. "We were handling this like it was a civil matter, not beating kids up with fines and fees. We were giving kids a lot of great opportunities for kiddos to go to referral services."

But Gravell fought to change the two decades old Truancy law once he realized not every court or school district was doing the same thing.

Texas State Representative James White (R) was HB2398's primary author. Houston State Senator John Whitmire (D) and Dallas State Senator Royce West (D) carried it through the Senate. 

"Being exposed to this kind of setting and being told you are a criminal and bad can put you in a state of mind that helps lead to further bad behaviors or decision making," said Terra Tucker.

A Policy analyst for Houston State Senator John Whitmire (D), Tucker was instrumental in writing the new law.

"It's exciting for me," she said. "I never thought it should be a criminal issue, I thought we should be working more to help and re-educate and treat these kids."

Under the new law, after three unexcused absences in four weeks, the school notifies parents.There's a face to face meeting and the students participates in a truancy prevention program. For children twelve and older who miss school ten or more times in six months, the school has to figure out why first. If they are homeless, pregnant, is in foster care or the breadwinner for their family, they get counseling and support.

If it's none of the above, as a last resort, they are referred to court. Once there, they could be fined up to a hundred dollars, lose their driver's license, or end up in juvenile court. 

Gravell says the new law also gives Judges the option of dismissing the ticket on the spot.

"I can order a kid to go to tutoring, I can now order our kids to be involved in mentoring or if I think a kid needs to attend a self-esteem class, I can order that too, so the court has a lot of authority," he says. 

"The majority of these cases are not ditching class," said Texas Appleseed's Morgan Craven, adding, "these kids actually have some actual issues they are dealing with, they have personal issues, they have family issues, they have school related issues."

Texas Appleseed led the charge for the policy change. In their research, the advocacy group found there were more than 100,000 truancy cases filed in 2013. In 2013, they were one of several who filed a complaint with the Justice Department over Dallas' truancy practices. This April, the Justice Department made the announcement that they would investigate. 

Craven says they will monitor how schools and courts implement and comply with the new law. 

For his part, Gravell will be spending much of the Fall teaching Judges across Texas best practices for handling Truancy cases. Best practices that he says his court, and school districts in his area implemented long before the new law was written. 

"What we were doing is what we are still going to be doing, it's just a classification of civil rather than criminal," said Jarrell ISD Superintendent Dr. Bill Chapman.

His current district is small, but prior to moving there, he was responsible for nearly two thousand students. Currently Jarrell sends parents a letter on the third and sixth absence. On the seventh, they meet with a truancy prevention counselor. Then there's a 9th letter, and on the 10th, they were sent to court. 

"For us, what we're doing is a best practice, it's just we're the only ones who are doing it and i would love to see other people doing it," Chapman said.

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