Breaking the cycle of Texas' Truancy Law

"Stay in school" is a saying kids hear every day until they graduate.

"Ultimately our goal if our kiddos are in school they are successful in life," says Williamson County Justice of The Peace Bill Gravell.

In Texas, they mean it. It's one of two states in the country that can prosecute kids for skipping ten unexcused days of school.

Gravell sees truant kids on a regular basis. "Truancy always involves something else and if we can help those kids discover what that problem is then we can help them come up with a solution so they are successful," he says." By the time you land in his court room, a "C" isn't a passing grade, it's a Misdemeanor and it carries up to a $500 fine. Fines, Gravell almost always dismisses, "The goal is not to beat anybody up in court, it's to help them comply with the law."

Last year, according to Texas Appleseed, more than 100,000 Texas kids were ticketed.

Texas Appleseed is fighting to get the law off the books. Mary Mergler Helms says the advocacy group's "School to Prison Pipeline Project" is one of their main projects.

"Only as a last resort would court referral be used that court referral would not be a criminal conviction," she said.

Gravell wants to fix it, instead of repealing it. "Sometimes i wonder is we aren't just not trying to fix something that's not broken instead of making some tweaks or repairs to it to make it better," he says.

The two sides may disagree about the need for legal intervention but since FOX 7's story first aired in November, there has been some movement to the middle. "I think there is a growing recognition from all parties that the way Texas is handling Truancy is ineffective and in many cases doing more harm than good," says Mergler.

Both are in their belief that more needs to be done in schools to keep kids from playing hooky.

"Schools need to really ensure that they are doing everything they can to help each individual student to address their needs and keep them on track to graduate on track to succeed," Mergler explains.

This legislative session there are at least fifteen truancy bills on the table, many of them in favor of decriminalizing it. Judge Gravell doesn't think those will pass. "Today, if you decriminalize truancy based upon some of the current laws that are presented what's the solution after that?"

Houston State Senator John Whitmire has been championing the issue for more than a decade.

"We can't criminalize school behavior in my judgment," Whitmire said.

He says day in and day out, he meets people who are struggling just to get by.

"The families that I come in contact with know and want their kids to go to school. But there is something in their lives preventing that from happening," he said.

Whitmire's Truancy Bill made it through the House and Senate last session. It was vetoed by Governor Perry. This time, he says he knows there will be a different outcome.

"I am willing to discuss with the superintendents and/or the judges that want to make ticketing a very last resort. The very last."

Like Gravell and Texas Appleseed, Whitmire also wants schools to take more responsibility.

"We are going to say you cannot criminalize truancy unless you meet this hurdle, this hurdle, case managers." He says he will hold schools accountable. But he cautions, one size doesn't fit all, "We need some flexibility some local control to work with model that fits your community."

A model that some say is working is the one in Williamson County.

Judge Gravell works hand in hand with school districts across the county to help kids get on track. Getting hauled to his court is the last resort. And he says he seen a ninety percent success rate,

"We have one of the few courts in America where before they can ever get to court - we can legally and lawfully intervene to help deter them from getting to court."

Having that legal power is what he believes is the best way to keeping them in school.

"We don't want to tell legislators how to do their job and our goal is not to write the law, our goal is to simply give them info and empower them to make the right choices."