Steeg: Truancy is more than “playing hooky”

Since 2007, I have served as the justice of the peace for Precinct 3 in Travis County. I preside over a truancy docket and serve students in three school districts: Austin, Lake Travis and Eanes.

I support the current law that criminalizes truancy because it provides a way to help students and their families through a restorative justice approach. The goal of restorative justice is to meet the needs of the students and is not focused on punishment.

Truancy is the symptom, not the problem. This is not “skipping school” like in the Ozzie and Harriet days. My court’s cases are predominantly school refusal and chronic truancy. School refusal is caused by medical, psychological or psychiatric conditions that cause the student anxiety.

Chronic truancy is habitual behavior that could be based upon illness, boredom, inadequate transportation, and hopelessness, based upon survey data collected in my juvenile case management program. One reason for the current outcry against this law is that some jurisdictions use it as a ticket mill.

Many courts, including my own, offer the student and parent “deferred adjudication” that requires the student to attend school and access needed medical, social services and behavioral interventions. The student is monitored to ensure compliance with the court’s order by periodic school visits, home visits and court appearances. Successful completion of the deferral results in a dismissal of the case.

Last school year, my juvenile case management program, which is led by a licensed master social worker, provided 484 total school visits in 12 elementary schools, eight middle schools and six high schools (including two schools districts and two charter schools). I have developed an internship program with the Schools of Social Work at both the University of Texas and Texas State University to provide meaningful training to social work students who enhance our services to families.

Our program has been successful based upon data showing an increase in credits earned, promotions, graduations, days of attendance and excused absences. This directly benefits our local community by increasing state funding to our school districts. When the state withholds funding due to unexcused days, our local school taxes are raised to make up the difference.

The schools I work with use a truancy filing as a last resort. Prevention is our top priority, and I have seen a significant drop in cases since my program began. The success is due to the numerous community partners who provide services, including Communities in Schools, Austin Travis County Integral Care, Youth Advocacy, and Lifeworks.

Criminalizing truancy creates urgency and demands action from parents whose attention is otherwise focused on the daily demands to feed, clothe and shelter their kids. Once we get their attention, the court can and should provide interventions to address the problems that result in truancy.

This is not about giving students a criminal record. In fact, all juvenile records in our court are confidential. The Legislature should make expunction of truancy records mandatory when there has been final disposition of a case. And what is the alternative? Our schools do not have the resources to find the students who no longer attend, nor do they have the authority to require parents and students to do anything. Our juvenile court is overwhelmed with children who have far more severe behavioral issues, as they are committing crimes against people and property.

I agree that we must stop the ticket mills and only use this law to help students progress to graduation. I urge that the judiciary and the Legislature appoint a task force to develop best practices in the juvenile case management programs that are currently operating throughout the state.

Steeg graduated from the University of Texas School of Law. She retired in 2004 as general counsel of the Texas Department of Health after serving more than 20 years in state government. She has served as justice of the peace in Precinct 3, Travis County, since 2007.

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