Sen. Ellis asks DOJ to investigate Texas’ truancy laws

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(Austin, TX) // Yesterday, March 18, Senator Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) sent a letter to United States Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) begin an investigation into racial disparities concerning the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

In particular, Sen. Ellis drew attention to Fort Bend ISD, which is in his senatorial district. From his letter:

According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

The problem is statewide. In 2013, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases, more than twice the number of all other states combined. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately impacted.

“I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students,” wrote Sen. Ellis. “Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.”

A .pdf of Sen. Ellis’ letter to Attorney General Holder may be downloaded here. The text of the letter is below:

 

March 18, 2015

The Honorable Eric Holder
United States Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001

Dear Attorney General Holder:

I write to urge the United States Department of Justice to use its authority to investigate truancy laws in Texas, where failure to attend school is considered a Class C Misdemeanor and prosecuted in adult criminal court with fines of up to $500.00 plus court costs. Specifically, I have concerns about a potential violation of 42 U.S.C. § 14141(a), which provides that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any governmental authority … to engage in a pattern or practice of conduct … by officials or employees of any governmental agency with responsibility for the administration of juvenile justice or the incarceration of juveniles that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”

Only Texas and one other state criminalizes students for truancy violations. After consulting with juvenile justice advocates at Texas Appleseed and other organizations, I believe the systemic approach to criminalize students for truancy deprives Texas students of their right to an education.

While the criminalization of truancy is an issue throughout Texas, much of my concern stems from the racial disparities in how the law is applied – particularly in Fort Bend Independent School District (ISD), which is located in my senatorial district. According to a recent Texas Appleseed study, in Fort Bend ISD, African American students comprised 53.3 percent of truancy cases filed, despite the fact that they only account for 29.1 percent of enrollment. Hispanic students in Fort Bend ISD comprised 32.9 percent of truancy cases filed, but account for 26.5 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 10.4 percent of truancy cases filed, but only account for 6.3 percent of enrollment.

Racial disparities surrounding the disproportionate application of truancy laws are not limited to Fort Bend ISD, however. Statewide, 80 percent of students sent to court for truancy are low income, and African Americans, Latino, and special education students are disproportionately sent to court statewide for truancy. For example, African American students comprised 20 percent of reported truancy cases filed statewide, but account for just 13 percent of enrollment. Latino students comprised 64 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but account for 52 percent of enrollment. Special education students comprised 13 percent of reported truancy cases filed, but only account for 8.5 percent of enrollment.

All told, Texas prosecuted 115,000 truancy cases in 2013, more than twice the number of all other states combined. This leaves students with criminal records that endanger the prospect of future jobs and higher education. Simply put, these laws hurt students, particularly the African American, Latino, and special education students who are sent to truancy court at rates much higher than students from other communities.

I have serious concerns about how quickly many jurisdictions appear to turn to the criminal justice system to address truancy, as well as the disproportionate targeting of minority and special education students. Education is the most important key to unlocking the doors of opportunity. But the Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting and further away from those opportunities.

Again, I urge the Department of Justice to immediately begin a thorough investigation into the racial disparities associated with the application of Texas’ truancy laws.

Sincerely,

Rodney Ellis

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