About 15 middle- and high-school students sit in a row of seats in a dark courtroom on a Monday night at Austin Municipal Court. A few of the students are talking quietly, but most of them are silent. No one looks like they want to be here. They were caught out of school by a police officer, and now they’re at the court's juvenile curfew class.
In Austin, students on the street between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. are breaking the city’s daytime juvenile curfew. If caught, students can be given a Class C misdemeanor. Last legislative session, the state decriminalized chronic absenteeism — missing multiple days of school over a period of time — and some say daytime juvenile curfew violations should be decriminalized, too.
Austin Municipal Court has taken steps to defer kids charged with breaking curfew from entering the criminal justice system. The curfew class is one way a ticket can be waived. The court won’t even file it in the system.
The class is painfully slow and the kids are difficult to engage. Christina Rodriguez, one of the court's juvenile case managers, tells the students she's going to explain curfew and truancy laws, and the difference between the law and school rules. "Understanding the risk and the consequences," she says.
The municipal judge would not talk to KUT on the record, but in an email, court operations officer Kim Chadwick said the goal of the diversion program is to resolve these citations in a less punitive way.
Morgan Craven with the advocacy group Texas Appleseed says the court procedures don't go far enough.
“If the child is unable, for whatever reason, to complete their requirements, they do end up with a Class C misdemeanor on their record," she says. "So that’s not true decriminalization, which I think does need to happen for this and other Class C misdemeanors.”
These kinds of charges can follow a student. They must be reported when students apply for college, enlist in the military and even when a family applies to live in public housing.
“Decriminalizing something doesn’t mean that suddenly nobody is paying attention to the kids that are not in school during the day and should be," Craven says. "There are many other ways to address the needs of those children and support children and get them back in school that don't include a criminal process.”
The students in the juvenile curfew class are quizzed on different aspects of the law. They're shown videos of what could happen if they leave campus during the school day, like being unaccounted for during an emergency or getting kidnapped.
“You guys are easily distracted by the cellphone," Rodriguez says. "Usually, you become a victim between the hours of 12 p.m. and 2 p.m.”
Rodriguez tells students that when people see them on the street, they call the police and say things like, "Hey, this person looks suspicious, they should be at school."
Police are also likely to view students on the street differently.
“When you do see a juvenile in the middle of the day [during school hours] … the chances that they may be a potential suspect in committing crimes in that specific area is high," says Troy Gay, assistant chief for the Austin Police Department.
It’s hard to ignore race in all of this. All of the students in the classroom are black and brown, and that reflects the race of the students cited for breaking daytime curfew. Last year, 85 percent of students who received juvenile curfew citations from Austin ISD police and APD were students of color.
“Yeah, we see that overrepresentation of students of color and usually students with disabilities in pretty much every single punishment, whether it’s alternative school placements or suspensions or contact with school police," Craven says. “This is just one more example of how the biases of administrators or police officers can play into how children’s behavior is viewed and how they are punished for that behavior.”
In a racially segregated city like Austin, there are clear areas of town where there are more students of color than others. Ellen Marrus, director for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center, says laws like these criminalize being on the street and some kids may just be on the street more than others.
“The kids in an inner-city area, kids of color, kids of lower income, they’re more likely to be hanging out on a street corner and might get into some trouble, there might be something that happens,” Marrus says, but white, suburban kids might be doing the same thing, just in their own homes. “So we have this image that the problem happens out on the street, because we don’t see what’s happening in the home.”
Another group against juvenile curfew: the homeschool community.
Anne Gebhart runs Heart of Texas, a homeschool group in North Texas. Her town of Bedford also has a daytime juvenile curfew, along with most major cities in the state. Gebhart says homeschool students have a lot of reasons to be outside during the school day without a parent, like walking a dog, going to the park, going on a field trip. Gebhart says being a kid in public shouldn’t be a crime.
“I just don’t feel like in America, being out in public just by yourself or with a parent or with a group of kids is automatically a picture of crime about to happen," she says.
In Austin, the juvenile curfew law must be reviewed by the City Council every three years. Delia Garza, who represents District 2, says she’s open to hearing from law enforcement about why this ordinance is needed, but she says schools should address why the student isn’t in class in the first place.
“There’s always underlying issues that affect children’s lives that we should be addressing those things like maybe their home situation is not the best, maybe they are homeless," Garza says. "I hope we can look at it more holistically then slapping some child with a misdemeanor."
The City Council is expected to review the law again this spring.