Dallas County could see truancy courts by the fall

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 29A

Dallas County is working to create four courts that will handle the thousands of truancy cases generated each year by chronically absent Dallas schoolchildren, officials said.

The new courts, two of which could debut as soon as October, will be designed to ensure that truancy cases are heard by a judge within days. Now, some cases languish for up to 18 months before they are heard.

“It doesn’t do anybody any good if a year or more goes by before a child is brought before the judge,” said County Commissioner Mike Cantrell.

Studies have long shown a direct link between skipping school and dropping out, and officials see early intervention in chronic truants as a way to reduce the size of the dropout problem. A recent study conducted for The Dallas Morning News estimated that the dropout rate in Dallas schools is 28 percent.

Truancy cases are a significant part of the caseload for justices of the peace. As of May 25, the Dallas Independent School District alone had filed 14,484 truancy cases during the school year. That was nearly 50 percent more cases than five years ago.

“Truancy is the early warning sign that problems are cropping up in a child’s life,” Mr. Cantrell said. “If you get to that child early on, you can correct the situation. But otherwise, they get so far behind they say, ‘Hey, I’m out of here.'”

Mr. Cantrell said the new courts would be led by specially appointed judges. That would lighten the docket for justices of the peace, a group that is about to shrink. On Oct. 1, three of the 14 peace justices will have their positions eliminated as part of restructuring approved by commissioners this month.

Mr. Cantrell, who served eight years as a justice of the peace, said most of his time on the bench was spent handling truancy cases. Other judges whose jurisdiction included parts of DISD had a similar workload, he said.

“This has been under discussion for several years,” said Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson. “But it became more critical when the decision was made to reduce the number of justices of the peace…. In some areas of the county, where the schools are very active, it has become a very significant part of the caseload.”

Justices of the peace handle truancy cases in various ways, which sometimes lead to widely varying backlogs. Some hear cases within three or four weeks of when they’re filed; others take a year or more.

“This will create consistency across the county, so everyone is treated in the same, efficient way,” said H.B. Bell, DISD’s assistant superintendent for dropout prevention.

The truancy courts will be highly computerized. Dr. Bell said the goal is to get cases before a judge within 10 days.

The locations of the new courts have not been set, but officials said two likely locations are on Polk Street in southern Dallas and at the North Dallas Government Center on Marsh Lane. Mr. Cantrell said he hopes the first two will open by October.

Because of state law governing the jurisdiction over truancy cases, the judges would probably be appointed initially by the city of Dallas. Mr. Cantrell said the county will probably ask the Legislature to allow commissioners or the county juvenile board to make appointments during the next session.

Most details of the arrangement are still being discussed, including how the cost of the courts will be divided.

The negotiations involve only DISD and the county. Dr. Bell said other county school districts would continue to use justice of the peace courts, but they could eventually be allowed to use the special truancy courts.

The arrangement being proposed is similar to one that went into effect in April in Fort Worth. There, a courthouse next to Eastern Hills High School handles the district’s truancy cases after officials determined Tarrant County’s justice of the peace system was too overwhelmed.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” said Cecilia Speer, Fort Worth’s executive director of student affairs. “The kids understand when they’re brought before the judge that we mean business.”

She said the wait for a truancy hearing in Fort Worth has been reduced from a month or more, on average, to less than two weeks.

There is also a financial incentive for Dallas schools to cut down on truancy. The state funds school districts in large part based on their average daily attendance.

Dr. Bell said a 1 percent increase in DISD’s attendance rate would mean an extra $8 million a year from the state.