I am extremely concerned about a growing movement among Texas legislators this session to water down legal consequences for truancy and other offenses. In Orwellian doublespeak, proponents of this movement call it “de-criminalization.” The same legislators also use the phrase “school-to-prison pipeline” as justifying their position. Truly, de-criminalization should be called “hyper-criminalization,” and the “school-to-prison pipeline” flooded if the legislation passes.
Let me explain.
Senator Whitmire, a democrat from the Houston area, is chair of the Criminal Justice Committee and is the best-known of many “de-criminalization” bill advocates in Texas. He believes students and parents are too often facing legal consequences for excessive absences from school. I’ve heard him tell a story about overwrought moms calling him with stories about how the judicial system is picking on them despite the many life challenges they face. Though schools have no legal authority over parents, he wants to place an even greater burden on the schools to track down and miraculously compel student attendance. And he calls this “local control” when, in fact, it imposes new state law preventing the local judiciary from acting! I’m sure that he and other legislators do care about students and parents, but the efforts are misguided.
In Pearland ISD, as in most of Texas, we make mighty efforts to get truant kids in school BEFORE resorting to the courts. Despite what the de-criminalization advocates say, we do have discretion about referrals when there are valid and compassionate reasons to wait. So when we do finally refer the matter to Judge Starkenburg, it is because of a large volume of unexcused absences. The judge is straightforward, merciful, meticulous, and helpful such that the higher goal can be reached: Kids attend school, and parents face up to their responsibilities.
Consequently, we have a drop-out rate here of 1%. We have a high school completion rate north of 96%. We also have a daily attendance rate of 96%. Do we really need our legislators to change what’s working for us?
State and federal politicians combine this “de-criminalization” of truancy with a larger push to stop what they claim is over-representation of minority students receiving discipline consequences. Democrats have joined Republican Education Commissioner Michael Williams in advocating this effort — as well as President Obama’s Department of Education. The assumption (though never stated) is that legions of racists are making disciplinary decisions — and therefore a quota system to constrain them is necessary. And if such limits are not enforced, society is widening the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
The reverse is true. Does anyone seriously believe that truant students spending all day outside of school are LESS likely to commit crimes leading to a prison record? By allowing students and parents to avoid legal responsibility for truancy and other offenses, society guarantees a new “hyper-criminalized” class of students who don’t attend school, are idle all day, and are MORE likely to use drugs and commit crimes. Consequently, more economically-disadvantaged minority students are disproportionately left WITHOUT a high school diploma, WITH a serious criminal record for offenses committed, and WITHOUT a chance to achieve the American dream. In short, the diameter of the “school-to-prison pipeline” is widened, not constricted.
After writing my first draft of this column today, I visited one of our schools. As I talked with the principal, we were interrupted by a crisis in the hallway. A young student became angry and disoriented after being caught under the influence of a drug. He began running away from the office. A school police officer was on-site and restrained him before he did further damage to himself or others. He then firmly and compassionately put his arm on the boy’s shoulder, walking him up and down the hallway until the student was calm. That is typical of our police officers and our local judiciary. They return students down the right path when they run away from school.
So let’s be realistic. Most Texans don’t believe that bad behavior is caused by requiring legal consequences for it! I implore our citizens to protest these legislative efforts underway right now in Austin. Otherwise, Texas is GUARANTEEING more drop-outs and more criminal records.