Lawmakers discuss truancy in schools at the State Capitol

The controversial law that fines kids for missing school is a much heated topic for legislators during this session. State Representatives and Senators are taking up the cause to reform the Truancy Law.

Texas is one of only two states that makes it a crime to miss school.

At least 20 bills filed by Republicans and Democrats aim to either relax the law or take it off the books completely. Wednesday at the Capitol, a House Committee heard testimony on ten of those bills.

More than 200 people signed up to testify, from both sides of the issue, including young mother Emily Arroyo.

"I had to take care of my son, he didn't have day care so I preferred to stay home with him and take care of him, rather than to go to school," she said.

Because of that, she says she missed 64 days of school. She was hauled in front of a judge for a Class C Misdemeanor.

"He actually gave me daycare and the next day after my court date, he had day care and I was back at school," she explained.

Arroyo will graduate in May. She hopes to one day be a Kindergarten teacher. The 18-year-old is in favor of keeping the law on the books. So is Georgetown's Truancy officer, Efrain Davila.

"If we leave it as a criminal matter, which puts teeth into it but make an automatic expungement, where you wash the records every year. If there's no long term affect, I think I'll be happy," he said.

Davila oversees a district with 10,000 students. Last year, he says roughly 300 kids were truant but only 36 were cited. Like others, he says there's much more to this issue than just skipping school.

"Truancy is a symptom of a problem. There's always something under it: domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health," he said.

He says he came to the Capitol Wednesday to plead for more help to get his kids on track before they end up in court.

"I want to have more time. Stop pushing paper and go our there and intervene with kids and their families and refer them to the right referral programs, the right support mechanisms," he explained.

The bills on Wednesday's docket ranged from relaxing the penalties or taking it off the books completely. Advocacy group Texas Appleseed wants to see it decriminalized.

Last week, they issued a scathing report on the state of truancy. They say State Representative Dan Huberty's bill is one they will support because it makes truancy a juvenile court issue, as well as holds schools more accountable.

"We think these bills provide a combination of school reforms as well as decriminalization," explained Morgan Craven.

The Committee's Chair, Houston State Representative Harold Dutton, says truancy should be civil and he wants the record to be thrown out once the child finishes with what the court has ordered.

"We are addressing it at the end where it's already happened where the kid is already truant and already out there when in fact the better bang for the buck is if we can put this before that," he said.

He says he wants to take the issue to the House School Committee. He wants to see what intervention programs can be put in place to help these kids with the issues they are dealing with that are keeping them from going to school.

"Schools have to be more attuned to truancy. And if they are more attuned to truancy they'll do something different than what they've been doing," he said.

Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell testified as well. He was just one of the dozens who came out to support keeping the law a criminal offense, albeit, with much reform. Like Dutton he'd like to see the record expunged once the student completes their court orders.

"We wanted the legislators to see what we are doing in Texas in the area of Truancy is working and working well," he said.

And for Emily Arroyo, this law, she says may have saved her life and the lives of many other students for generations to come.

"Not only was it a second chance for me to go to school it could be a second chance for the students who come behind me," she said.