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Truancy Reforms In Dallas Schools Are Keeping More Students In Class

Bill Zeeble
Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, at lectern, with Dallas Supterintendent Michael Hinojosa to his right. "These recommendations will make our courts a more rarely used system of last resort."

Dallas school and county leaders have unveiled truancy reforms aimed at keeping more kids in class.

Leaders issued 24 recommendations. Some need to be approved by state lawmakers, while others can be adopted now by school districts.

Officials say kids are spending too much time in court for minor offenses.

Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa realized the district had a problem when he learned Dallas truancies amounted to half the cases in the entire state.

“We had a very rigid rule,” Hinojosa said, “that if you didn’t turn in a note from a doctor or parent in three days you were considered truant. Well, the student had a legitimate reason for being out, but we weren’t taking their notes. And you know, some kids, they don’t turn in a note, but that doesn’t make it a criminal issue.”

The Dallas school district has led the state in truancies, with 13,000 a year. Those cases ended up in court, because for years Texas made missing too much school a crime. Last year’s state reforms took most cases out of the courts. As a result, Dallas truancies dropped below 500.

Among other recommendations from county and school leaders? A student in school who misses part of a class, or shows up a few minutes late, for whatever reason, will no longer be counted truant. It’ll be handled at school and not treated as a crime, according to Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

“These recommendations will make our courts a more rarely used system of last resort,” Jenkins said.

Allison Brim welcomes all the changes. She’s the education director with parent advocacy group, The Texas Organizing Project. She served on the committee that came up with the recommendations and says criminalizing absenteeism doesn’t educate kids and doesn’t keep most of them in school.

“We heard both Judge Jenkins and Superintendent Hinojosa talk about some of the real struggles that parents and families and students are facing,” Brim said, “which are the cause of why they end up not in school or not in class for a day.”

Brim says students deal daily with events out of their control; pregnancy, financial issues and medical emergencies, even a relative on drugs. Still, she says, those students want to go to school. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.