Despite State Decriminalizing Truancy, Austin Students Can Still Get Charged For Skipping

Apr 13, 2017

Lunchtime is wrapping up at Austin High School, just west of downtown. As students walk back inside, Austin ISD Police Officer Chris Roddy walks out. He heads toward the MoPac highway underpass, where there are some trails. He patrols the area daily for kids who may be skipping school.

He points to a wooded area off the trail and says kids tend to migrate by the river and quiet spots on the creek bed to be out of sight and "engage and activitize." There were no students there at that time. Roddy says most kids who skip school try to do it in the morning.

Roddy sees himself as an integral part of the education process there. He makes sure kids stay on campus and get an education.

If they leave, they’ve violated the city’s daytime juvenile curfew ordinance. Students under 17 aren’t allowed on the street by themselves between 9 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. — school hours. If they’re caught, students can be given a Class C misdemeanor ticket and are sent to municipal court.

“When it’s needed to reinforce the expectation that you're going to adhere to policies, if you need to be cited and appear in court, I think that’s appropriate," Roddy says.

In Texas, it’s no longer possible to send chronically absent students to criminal court for missing school. Lawmakers decriminalized truancy last legislative session. Now, schools must manage those issues internally, using the civil court as a last resort. But many cities across Texas still have juvenile daytime curfew laws that allow law enforcement to file criminal charges against students for not being in class. 

The juvenile curfew ordinance was implemented in Austin in the early 1990s. It was intended to address a rising fear of juvenile crime. Dallas, Houston and San Antonio also have daytime curfews.

Back then, juveniles made up 12 percent of all arrests in Austin. That number has since dropped to 3 percent. When the law was enacted, police say, it was less about keeping kids in school.

“I think that is more of why the tool is necessary, to ensure that juveniles aren’t in a position to commit crimes," says Assistant Chief Troy Gay with the Austin Police Department.

APD and Austin ISD police say they ticket students as a last resort. First, they issue warnings. But, AISD Police Chief Eric Mendez says, if a student habitually leaves campus, there must be consequences. 

"To criminalize a child’s behavior ... all that it really does is pull a child into the system that might never really end up in the system."

Since the state decriminalized chronic absenteeism, some say juvenile curfew should also be decriminalized.

“To criminalize a child’s behavior, whether it’s on a curfew law or truancy or any kind of minor infraction, all that it really does is pull a child into the system that might never really end up in the system," says Ellen Marrus, director for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center.

Marrus says the juvenile curfew law evolved during a time when there was a fear of the mythical juvenile “superpredators” — ruthless teenagers who would commit crimes without remorse.  

“When they came in groups they were even more dangerous, the whole idea of gangs," Marrus says. "So that puts the fear in everyday people, and it puts the fear in police."

This fear also led to the rise of zero-tolerance policies in schools, including the use of expulsions and alternative school placements – in addition to using the police and court system to address student behavior – says Morgan Craven with the social justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed. But those so-called superpredators never showed up. Juvenile crime has declined ever since. Police credit the juvenile curfew for curbing that crime, but Marrus and Craven say juvenile crime was already on the decline when these laws were enacted. 

Marrus says schools should be looking at reasons why a student isn't going to class.

“If you really want to keep children in school, then you have to come up with what it’s going to do to keep them there," she says. "And making them a criminal is not going to keep them in school."

In the first year since truancy was decriminalized, Austin ISD police issued 392 tickets – a 30 percent increase from the previous year – while APD wrote around 20.