Late last March, the Department of Justice announced a federal investigation of the Dallas County Texas Truancy courts. Based on preliminary investigations, the Justice Department estimated that in 2014, Dallas County prosecuted over 20,000 children for missing class. Punishing students for truancy may be understandable, but in Dallas students can be arrested in front of their classmates, sent to court, and charged outrageous fines. The Justice Department is investigating the processes used by the Dallas court. Reports indicate students with valid excuses for missing class are still being charged and fined by the court, with no chance to explain. KERA News in Dallas reported on one student at a school in East Dallas, who after a schedule change was counted truant from one class when she was sitting down the hall in a different class. She was arrested in front of her mother and fined $200, all with no attorney and no real chance to explain to the judge.
“This investigation continues the Justice Department’s focus on identifying and eliminating entryways to the school-to-prison pipeline, and illustrates the potential of federal civil rights law to protect the rights of vulnerable children facing life-altering circumstances. As the investigation moves forward, the Department of Justice will work to ensure that actions of Dallas County’s courts are appropriate; that our constitutional protections are respected; and that the children of Dallas County can receive the meaningful access to justice that all Americans deserve.”
The investigation was triggered by complaints filed by Texas Appleseed, Disability Rights Texas and the National Center for Youth Law. One of the disputed practices in Dallas County is the practice of arresting students at school in front of their classmates. As Deborah Fowler, the deputy director of Texas Appleseed (one of the three advocacy groups that filed the complaint with DOJ) poignantly said, “It’s really hard for me to see how arresting a child at school promotes engagement in education.”