It's a fight many have waged for decades: decriminalizing truancy. Under the old law chronic school skippers were hauled into court and unless they filed to get it expunged the mark stayed on their record permanently.
Now all of that has changed because of a new law that went into effect on September 1st. Under the new law skipping school is no longer a crime, it's now a civil ticket.
Schools must use all means possible before filing on a student. That includes sending letters at intervals of days missed and having a face to face meeting with the student and their parents.
Once the student is filed on, a prosecutor reviews the case to determine if it's viable to forward it on to the court.
Certain teenagers cannot be filed for truancy, including: pregnant teens, homeless teens, teens in foster care and teens who are their family's primary earner.
Courts and schools across Texas are learning to implement the new law too including those across Central Texas.
“It never should have been in the criminal courts to begin with,” says Precinct 1 Justice of the Peace Yvonne M. Williams.
Long before the law was changed, Williams along with staffers in her court established programs for truant kids that worked with the whole family, not just the child who was missing school. “It takes a village concept was replayed before our very eyes.”
Much of the money to keep the Parent Engagement Workshop going comes out of Williams’ pocket or it's donated from her staffers and the community. She says people would even donate food for the families to eat while they were in class.
Chioma Okoro credits the program for getting her son on track. “If I wouldn’t have come here, I wouldn’t have made it with him.”
Okoro, a mother of four, enrolled her whole family, including her daughter Catherina who is in the National Honor Society. Skeptical at first, Catherina says something unexpected happened, “We all communicate a lot better than we used to.”
The new law doesn’t alter the way Williams offers help to teens. But it does change how their record looks in the future.
Before truancy was de-criminalized, a child who was determined to be truant, had to file to get it expunged from their record at 18. In many cases, that never happened, according to de-criminalization advocates, leaving a permanent mark.
As of September 1st, all of those records were wiped clean. It gives tens of thousands of Texas children a fresh start.
“For people who say that it doesn’t, it’s not about that, yes it is, and we see that,” says Eleanor Thompson. She oversees the juvenile division in Judge Williams’ court.
Under the new law parents can still be held criminally responsible. And even though schools bear more of the burden of keeping kids in class, the legislature didn’t set aside any funds for them to do so.
“Our schools do not have the resources, they are not social services, they are not law enforcement agencies, they are there to educate the children who show up,” says Judge Susan Steeg. Steeg is also a Travis County Justice of the Peace and she represents Precinct 3.
Like Judge Williams, Judge Steeg is focused on the family and prevention. She says she has found success with her programs. Programs that were implemented before truancy became de-criminalized. She opposes how the new law was put into practice. She says it takes away the tools she readily had available to help kids get back on track.
“They come here not as a criminal filing, not because it’s criminal, not for punishment,” says Steeg, “They come here because I have additional resources that I can use to help the child and the family succeed.”
Steeg is adamant that what’s in the new law’s 75 pages will only hurt the children it means to help. “I think there’s no incentive for a school to keep a child on their roll to go through this complex process, I think the withdrawals will increase,” she adds.
Even those who cheered the new legislation on to victory don’t give it an A+. They say they are frustrated with some of the law's unnecessary hurdles, including adding a prosecutor into the mix. Now, before a child ever ends up in court, the prosecutor has to review the case to make sure the child should be filed on as truant.
“It’s going to slow us down,” says Thompson, “when a child has already been absent 10 or 15 days when they come to court, we don’t want to waste time sending paperwork back and forth we want to go to work with that child immediately.”
Steeg says it doesn’t make sense, “What they were wanting to do is again to get the criminal out of the equation but yet the procedures that were enacted are very much criminal in nature.”
Criminal in nature but no longer a crime and opponents of the old law believe that’s key, because according to them, scaring kids straight doesn’t always work. “If you could our prisons wouldn’t be so full ,” Thompson says.
But consider the perspective of several teens who last year, were truant, before the law was de-criminalized. They had to appear in front of Judge Williams’, who, like the other kids she sees, helped them get the resources they needed to get back on track. After successfully completing the programs, they are now getting an education, and thriving.
“Had this law been in place when you were filed on, do you think you’d be going back to school?” Asked FOX 7’s Elizabeth Saab when she sat down with them to talk about the new procedures.
“Probably not, I probably would have dropped out all together,” says Adrianna Mendez.
“They aren’t putting pressure on us, they aren’t pushing us to do anything,” says Brayan Juarez about how the school handled his being chronically absent.
The two credit coming to Judge Williams’ court, and the people who worked with them, as the catalysts for getting back on track
Says Adrianna, “I did start thinking about it then and my dad would bring me to court, and he was missing work to bring me, and it really did make me think about it.”
“What they need is the discipline,” Thompson explains, “They don’t need the law to be disciplined, that’s the difference.”
But for at risk kids who seemed to have lost their way, Steeg worries, the new law will be a barrier to reaching them. “The conversation has to happen with the parent,” she says, “but when you have parents who are not doing their part and you can’t find the parents, you can’t start the conversation.”