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Despite state decriminalizing truancy, Austin students can still get charged for skipping

Thursday, April 13, 2017 by Kate McGee

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

“So these would be these little areas that our kids might tend to migrate down to into the river, creek bed here (to) be out of sight … and engage and activitize,” Roddy said, pointing into a wooded area just off the trail. There were no students there at that moment. Roddy said 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 of Austin’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 appropriate, when it’s applicable and when it’s needed to … adhere to the law that 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. Instead, schools must manage those issues internally, using the civil court as a last resort. But many cities across Texas still have a juvenile daytime curfew law on the books that still allow law enforcement to file criminal charges against a student for not being in class.

The juvenile curfew ordinance was implemented in Austin in the early 1990s. It was aimed at addressing this 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 three percent. When it started, police say the law 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,” said Assistant Chief Troy Gay with the Austin Police Department.

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

Since the state decriminalized chronic absenteeism, some wonder if juvenile curfews have outlived their purpose.

“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,” said Ellen Marrus, director for Children, Law & Policy at the University of Houston Law Center.

Marrus said the juvenile curfew law came out of a time when there was a fear of the mythical juvenile “super predators” – ruthless teenagers who would commit crimes without remorse.

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

This fear led to the rise of zero tolerance policies in schools, including the use of expulsions, alternative school placements, and the police and the court system to address student behavior, according to Morgan Craven with the social justice advocacy group Texas Appleseed. But those so-called super predators 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 said schools should be looking at reasons why a student may not be going to class.

“If you really want to keep children in school, you have to come up with what it’s going to take to keep them there. And making them a criminal is not going to keep them in school,” Marrus said.

Austin ISD doesn’t issue a lot of daytime juvenile curfew tickets. They wrote a 392 tickets during the last school year, and APD wrote around 20. But that was the first year truancy was decriminalized statewide. In that time, the number of juvenile curfew tickets written by Austin ISD police increased 30 percent from the previous year.

Photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT. This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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