March 31, 2015 / 8:35 PM / 4 years ago

U.S. Justice Department launches probe of Dallas truancy courts

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating truancy courts in Dallas County, Texas, for alleged violations such as blocking access to lawyers and excessive fines after complaints about a system critics say is one of the nation’s harshest.

The investigation of the Truancy Court and Juvenile District Court in Dallas County “will focus on whether the courts provide constitutionally required due process to all children charged with the criminal offense of failure to attend school,” the department said on Tuesday.

About two years ago, public interest law centers filed a complaint with the DOJ about truancy in Texas, which can be a criminal offense, saying students have been shackled in court, denied their legal rights to counsel, fined and often forced to leave school.

The chief political official in Dallas County promised full cooperation with the DOJ probe and said he would back reform.

“We remain committed to giving every student their best chance at staying in school and graduating,” Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said.

Texas lawmakers at the current legislative session are considering reforms that would reduce truancy penalties and make it easier for students to return to the classroom.

“The Texas truancy system is pushing students who often face economic and social hardships out of the school setting,” said state Senator Rodney Ellis, a Democrat.

Texas filed about 115,000 truancy cases in 2013, more than twice the number in all other states combined, according to a report from Texas Appleseed, a youth advocacy group. Dallas County Truancy Courts stood out for their high volume.

Most of those punished were from lower-income households, with fines often levied as punishment, the study published in March said. In some cases, children ended up in prison.

“The failure to appoint counsel means that children are being left to represent themselves, often without any understanding of what their rights are or how to appropriately advocate for themselves,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed.

Texas law allows a school to refer a student to truancy court if they have three unexcused absences within a four-week period. Most of the students punished for criminal truancy are Hispanic or African-American, the study said.

The study said that Texas and Wyoming are the only two states to try truancy cases in adult courts.

Additonal reporting by Marice Richter in Dallas; Editing by Eric Walsh

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