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.

Advocates for so called “truancy reform” state they believe students and parents are too often facing legal consequences for excessive absences from school. They advance stories about overwrought moms calling legislators about how the judicial system is picking on them despite the many life challenges they face. Though schools have no legal authority over parents, truancy reform advocates want to place an even greater burden on the schools to track down and miraculously compel student attendance. And this is falsely portrayed as “local control” when, in fact, it imposes new state law preventing the local judiciary from acting! I’m sure that 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. 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.



  1. 1 Deron Harrington April 11, 2015 at 12:26 pm

    Dr. Kelly –

    I could not agree with you more but I’d take it one step further. Urge your fellow Superintendents who are operating truancy programs that are abusive to adopt common sense approaches to ensure a Truancy referral to a Court is the last resort not the first.. PISD is filing a couple hundred truancy complaints with a student population in the 20k range and you have other districts filing at rates that are just mind boggling. The variances are not explainable due to student demographics — these administrators are abusing their discretion under Tex. Ed. Code 25 and because of their perceived abuse of such — they are creating this dynamic. Please use your influence to urge your fellow Superintendents to design and implement truancy programs that will continue to allow appropriate local control. That’s the key – if all would do such — this would not be a debate at all. Like the old saying goes “it only takes a few to spoil what is working”. We all need to allow our local leadership to have all the tools available to ensure an appropriate educational environment.

    Thank you for the post and I greatly appreciate your leadership.

    Deron R. Harrington

    • 2 Dr. John P. Kelly May 15, 2015 at 12:59 pm

      Thank you Deron for your comments. I do agree with you that the abuses of a few give the state fodder for dictating to all. I don’t know for sure, but I theorize that the problem you describe is disproportionately found in inner-city schools overwhelmed with economically disadvantaged students. In that environment the truancy process, without a mountain of resources, could easily become a stale paperwork bureaucracy with instant referrals replacing care and compassion. Thus legislation to force school districts to do more is worthless without the resources necessary for additional personnel and equipment to go the extra mile. In the absence of such adequate funding, the legislature just piles on the mandates as though the people and resources necessary will magically appear.

      Obviously I’m proud that in Pearland ISD we have almost a zero drop-out rate and a 96% completion rate (freshmen graduating in 4 years). I acknowledge this is possible partly because the size of the problem in Pearland is manageable. I’m prouder still of our Attendance Department who thinks “compassion first” before the coercive measures need be applied. That office has rescued dozens of homeless students/families, provided food and clothing, and done a million other things besides enforcing the law. Our Attendance Office stars are: Susan Holloway, Anthony Vereen, Robert Galan, Lavenda Malbrough, Robin Berryhill. See their profiles:


      • 3 Deron R. Harrington May 23, 2015 at 7:56 am

        You bet – your doing everything right, you get it, and it’s working. Have great sympathy for potential mandates and loss of tools – for folks in that category. I believe in local control. You, your team, your board, and your community. Your concept for United for Kids ! is just absolutely outstanding. You can’t legislate stuff like that from Austin.

        Like most things in Austin – they paint with a broad brush – but nothing can substitute for local leadership. Never has and never will. They tend to legislate to lowest common denominator. If anything – targeted reform direct towards districts where problems are occurring would likely be much more appropriate.

        Keep rocking it out for Pearland! Your leadership is noticed and greatly appreciated.

  2. 4 M J Morris February 27, 2015 at 1:58 pm

    Thank you Dr. Kelly for your comments. I am 100% behind you. Parents are Not taking responsibility. I hate to see what happens if this passes

  3. 5 Buck Stevens February 20, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    This article is right on… wish we could figure out a way to hold parents more accountable though. We have parents show up at these hearings and the first thing they want to do is “blame the system” for their child’s absences, instead of coming up with solutions. And it comes from all races and all social-economical backgrounds. Parents get notified about their kids absence’s almost immediately yet do nothing to help the school or officers get the kids back into school, but rather wait until it is so late in the cause the school has to take action. Get involved in your kids life and their education! Don’t expect the government to do it for you! CBS

  1. 1 Dr. John Kelly: Truancy “Decriminalized?” | The Silvercreek Tribune Trackback on February 20, 2015 at 11:47 am

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