Texas was the last of two states—Wyoming being the other—that treated truancy as a crime. Students and their parents faced court fines, and if penalties went unpaid, teen truants could be cuffed by constables and sent to jail.
None of this made any sense to me when 10 years ago, as San Antonio’s presiding municipal judge, I inadvertently began the process of changing the system across the state.
I had heard from a friend who handled attendance in one of the largest of San Antonio’s 16 school districts. This assistant principal was concerned because truancy cases filed in January could not be heard by justices of the peace until October. At the time, Bexar County, which includes the city of San Antonio, handled about 36,000 truancy cases a year.
I wondered why we weren’t figuring out why students were not going to school—as opposed to just jamming them into the school-to-prison pipeline. Troubled by that question and knowing there was nothing to preclude a municipal judge from hearing truancy cases, I stepped in to work through the backlog with another judge. We processed 1,200 cases over three weeks.
I could immediately tell the system was definitely broken.
In San Antonio and Bexar County, the municipal court took over the handling of all truancy cases, and immediately the number of criminal actions halved to about 16,000. We also established a system to use juvenile case managers to intervene with students and prevent truancy cases from escalating into criminal action.
Certainly, you had some kids who were just hard to reach. But a lot of the time we were able to identify clear issues that we could at least try to help them get addressed.
Meanwhile, a panel of lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, and educators was convened in 2013 to create a uniform approach to truancy prevention for the city and county that persists to this day. Juvenile case managers get involved as soon as a problem becomes apparent and work one-on-one with students and parents to come up with a “contract” for improving attendance. This could involve counseling, tutoring, mentoring, community service, or other types of services for the student or parent.
I went to Austin next and testified before state legislators for the need to remove truancy as a criminal offense. Some justices of the peace argued that without fines, the court had no teeth. They kept talking about teeth, and we were talking about heart. The measure to remove the criminal treatment of truancy became Texas law in 2015.
Today, San Antonio has more than 30 case managers at schools around the city and county who deal with truancy issues. The only way a formal case can be brought is through a civil process. Only about 16 truancy cases are filed a year. We were the first large court in Texas to receive a grant from the governor’s office to fund additional juvenile case managers with the express intent of intervening early on, preventing truancy and reducing the number of juvenile court referrals.
One of the early observations that we made, which kind of became the mantra of our court, is, “Kids don’t have truancy problems. They have problems that are causing them to be truant.” It’s one of the greatest achievements of my career that the entire state took up my mantra. Now, in San Antonio, we can really help students overcome their problems, instead of compounding them.
John W. Bull began his legal career as a small-town lawyer. He was elected to the municipal court in San Antonio in 1999 and became the presiding judge in 2004.
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