Much to the surprise of some students and parents, the decriminalization of truancy does not include a free pass to skip class.
While truants no longer face criminal charges, they are being held accountable for chronic absenteeism.
Three unexcused absences prompt administrative intervention measures on local school campuses. After 10 unexcused absences, students and their parents are summoned before a judge for mediation.
After each round of summonses, there are calls from parents and students who thought decriminalization meant there would be no court appearances, said Irene Gamble, Judson ISD attendance coordinator.
Changes in state truancy laws allow for the filing of a criminal case against the parent and a civil case against the student only as a last resort. Before then, multiple attempts at intervention are made at the campus level and even during home visits, Gamble said.
On Wednesday, 75 cases were on the mediation docket at the Eastside Education Training Center.
With just over three months left until the end of the school year, Municipal Court Administrative Judge John Bull, who presided over the docket, warned students they will have to hustle if they want to graduate or get promoted to the next grade.
In the 2014-15 school year — before the law changed — there were 37,284 criminal truancy cases filed in Bexar County. That number is now down to 44 for the 2015-16 school year, according to court officials.
Last school year, 4,600 truancy cases were adjudicated through campus-based contracts, pre-court diversion and mediation. The number of cases on the meditation docket remains in the thousands this year.
The problems that students on the mediation docket are facing are complex and usually don’t have anything to do with academics, Bull said.
There is the sophomore who has impregnated three girls, the teenage girl who escaped her home because she was being sexually abused by her biological father, and the mother who withdrew her daughter from school because the mother was embarrassed by the daughter’s pregnancy.
There are no quick fixes. Many of the cases require intervention that extends far beyond the classroom, and the court is working on that.
The city of San Antonio has 19 case managers to work with truants and their families to get them back on track and to assist with referrals to the social services they might need. But it is not enough.
Bull is asking the state for $2 million in grant funding to hire 20 more case managers. While some schools do well sharing a case manager, some problem schools require multiple case managers, Bull said.
Attendance is a big factor in the state’s new public school A-to-F grading system. It is forcing schools to come up with innovative ways to reduce truancy. This year, school districts started holding forums to meet with parents of students with attendance problems to explain the truancy regulations and what must be done to keep their students on track.
Judson ISD began holding forums in the fall and has done very well with them, Bull said. Unfortunately, some schools waited until now, with only a few months left until the end of school year, to begin forums. Still, there is optimism some students can be steered back on course.
On March 4, municipal court officials are hosting what Bull is referring to as an intervention at Lanier High School, which is deep in the heart of one of the truancy-prone areas in Bexar County. Court records show Lanier and the schools that feed into it have more than 2,000 meditations pending.
The municipal court judge plans to have all case managers on-site, along with representatives from dozens of nonprofit social service agencies.
The goal is to triage as many cases as possible.
It’s a lifeline that the seriously at-risk students in the Lanier community must embrace if they want to complete their education.
Gloria Padilla may be reached at 210-250-3166 or email@example.com
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