Should skipping school be a crime?

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Monday, May 11, 2015
Should truancy be a crime?
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Tom Abrahams introduces you to a teen who's racking up court costs fines and even criminal charges

AUSTIN, TX (KTRK) -- Alyjah Haley was 10 years old when he knew life wasn't fair.

"I was in CPS care most of my life, ran away twice, been homeless, been in about six or seven different homes," Haley said.

With little guidance and no stability, school was not a priority.

"I was skipping school, but at the same time, there was a point where I couldn't go to school. I received a bunch of tickets because I would miss school," Haley said.

He racked up court costs, fines, and criminal charges because that is how the state of Texas deals with truants.

Eyewitness News met with Harris County Justice of the Peace Judge Don Coffey. He showed us 5,000 outstanding warrants for adults who skipped school as children and haven't paid their fines. Most of the warrants were issued before he became a judge four years ago.

"There's over $1 million worth of fines on this table," Coffey said. "I feel like the system is not working."

Coffey says the fines often don't get paid and with outstanding criminal warrants, children cannot get their driver's licenses when they reach 16.

"It's a class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500," Coffey said.

Some courts, he says, try to work with families to find alternatives to fines or jail time. However, others do not.

"Based on our research, there's no evidence the current approach is improving graduation rates or improving attendance rates," said Mary Mergler with Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit which studied Texas' approach to truancy.

"Texas is relying almost exclusively on the court system to handle truancy," Mergler said.

The group found that in 2013, Texas filed 115,000 truancy cases. The rest of the country combined issued 50,000. Texas was just one of two states to criminalize truancy for juveniles.

"If you slap them with a fine, that might be their rent. That could be their food for that month," Haley said.

But the laws governing truancy could soon change. There is a movement in Austin to alter the way truancy is handled in the court and in the classroom.

Houston State Senator John Whitmire sponsored Senate Bill 106, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a vote in the House. It reduces fines for parents, mandates intervention, and makes the case a civil issue for children.

"If you really examine most instances, it was just hardships. It wasn't just somebody that was lazy or didn't want to go to school," Whitmire said.

There are some districts already doing what the state would mandate, among them is Aldine ISD.

"If they're in school, that's the only opportunity they're going to have to be successful," Aldine ISD attendance officer Larry Smith said.

As an attendance officer for the district, Smith goes to children's homes, finds out why they're missing school, and what they can do to help get them back in class.

"Most of the time, there's something that triggers this lack of attendance. We just have to find out what it is," Smith said.

"When I come it's like a fresh face they can talk to, and it gives them a chance to open up," said fellow Aldine ISD attendance officer Israel Flores.

According to Texas Appleseed, Aldine ISD has one of the lowest rates of case filings in the state, yet its graduation rate is better than similar districts which use the courts as a solution.

"I think they should all do what we're doing. It's obviously working for us," Smith said.

Alyjah Haley is now 18. On his arms are tattoos that tell his story. His heart is on one sleeve and what he calls an ugly tree of life that manages to stand is on the other.

A year ago he graduated from high school, and now he has a job with plans to go to a barber college. He also owes $800 in truancy fines and does not have his driver's license.

"I even tell other people, if I can graduate high school, it should be nothing to you," Haley said.

He is one of thousands wanting an education that was not easy to get, but that a change in law could make easier for so many.