KLRU News Briefs: The fight over decriminalizing truancy in Texas

“Texas prosecutes more than twice the number of truancy cases prosecuted in all other states combined.” That’s according to Texas Appleseed, a legal advocacy group which released a report this month entitled Class, Not Court,  outlining why they support decriminalizing truancy in Texas. This weekend and part of next weekend, we look at the different sides of this issue, and try to find out why these students are missing school.

The law currently states that when a child has unexcused absences for 3 days or parts of days within a four-week period, the school can refer the child to court for truancy. If the child racks up unexcused absences for 10 days or parts of days within 6 months, the school “must file a complaint in juvenile or adult criminal court regardless of any ongoing intervention,” according to Texas Appleseed. Truancy is a Class C Misdemeanor punishable by a fine up to $500.

State Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) has filed yet another bill this session to decriminalize truancy. Whitmire’s Senate Bill 106 would make truancy a civil, rather than criminal, offense and would set up early intervention programs to work with the child before they get to court. He authored a similar bill last session. It passed both chambers but was vetoed by Governor Perry. SB106 is scheduled for public hearing this Tuesday, March 31.

“To criminalize [truancy] I think is nuts,” Senator Whitmire said. “I don’t think it helps the family, it certainly profiles the family [and] the student, and I think there’s a better way. We need to get involved in the root cause of the truancy.”

“In most cases truancy is a problem that can be best addressed in the school setting with school officials and the family working together to resolve the underlying issues, bringing in or referring a student to non-profit organizations or other groups when appropriate, but court referral can be, or should be, a very last resort,” Mary Mergler, Director of Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project said.

Many of the people we spoke to mentioned that some districts use an automated system to track absences. We spoke to Lydia De La Garza, Truancy Specialist at Manor ISD. She told us that isn’t the case in Manor.

“At one point when I first moved to Manor, truancy filings were up to 300-400 a year. And so since I came, we cut it in half. Altogether it’s because of my position and providing those interventions and making sure we’re filing on the correct students. It was a computer generated system and it was probably like how other school districts in other areas are probably doing right now,” De La Garza said.

For her, filing for truancy is always the last resort, but sometimes a necessary one.

“So finally when I get to court, then it’s like ‘okay all of these efforts have been done. I need you to help me either make them understand that school is important and that they need to follow through with certain programs.’ Because sometimes they won’t follow through with a certain program of getting involved. Yes, me administering the programs to them is one thing. But then them actually enrolling it, I need more support of a judge to say ‘no, you need to come to these parent workshops.’ And also, working with the student to get enrolled. So we have to investigate that,” De La Garza said.

Manor’s cases end up in the Travis County Justice of the Peace Precinct 1 courtroom in front of Judge Yvonne Williams. Judge Williams sees some of the most economically disadvantaged kids in our region and on two Wednesdays per month her courtroom handles truancy cases.

“We know the big picture is we want you to be good citizens. It’s been shown if you don’t graduate you’re less likely to be employed. So, we know that’s a good goal. Now, how do we make that happen? And that’s what I grapple with in my courtroom on a regular basis,” Judge Williams said. “What I’m trying to do is get behind those issues. I am in favor of decriminalizing.  Do I have an answer to what does that mean in terms of how to enforce? Not yet, but I think good people and good minds are working on it, and one of the things we have to do is make school someplace where children want to go, number 1.  We have to recognize the reason people don’t go to school is lots of reasons. There could be issues at home, issues with the child.”

Some of those issues are highlighted in Texas Appleseed’s report: 1 out of every 8 truancy filings is a student with special education needs.

“Many times what we see is students who have never been identified in the school system as having a disability, even though they have a long standing diagnosis, even though schools are informally aware of their disability, they’re not actually labelled as special education,” Meredith Shytles Parekh, an attorney with Disability Right Texas said. “What we’re seeing is courts getting these cases where the students have the disability, but the school isn’t providing any resources, and the courts are saying, ‘My hands are tied, all I can do is enter a plea for you, find you guilty or no contest,’ or whatever the student is pleading, and assess fines or community service or some other penalty, but it’s nothing that’s going to address the underlying root of what is causing the student’s absences.”

Judge Williams does explain all of the plea offerings to every person in her courtroom, in English and in Spanish through a translator. For special needs cases she says she can usually tell and is careful not to embarrass the student in front of everyone else in the courtroom.

“If it looks like a child has special needs, then I’m going to assign them to my juvenile case manager’s caseload. That person is then going to say ‘Maybe we need to put you with some housing specialists,’ or if the child is pregnant, “Maybe we should send you to any number of the teen pregnancy programs,’ or if it’s just a matter of ‘I’m not learning the way others learn, and I’m embarrassed so no, I don’t go to school, I show up and walk the halls,’ then we need to find what it means to put that person with tutoring, and maybe some other programs that deal with self-esteem,” Judge Williams said.

 Another concern when it comes to criminalized truancy is the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. We’ll take a look at that side of the issue next weekend during PBS NewsHour.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. This story is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Lydia De La Garza is a member of our American Graduate Advisory Group.

Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx. 

In the Studio: Senator Bernie Sanders tapes Overheard 4/2

Overheard taping announcement

Please join KLRU’s Overheard with Evan Smith for an interview with Senator Bernie Sanders on April 2 at 8:45am in KLRU’s Studio 6A (map). Doors open at 8:15am.  The event is free but an RSVP is required. RSVP NOW

BernieSandersSenator Bernie Sanders is the junior senator from Vermont. He was re-elected to his second term in 2012. Sanders is the longest-serving Congressional Independent in US history. Before joining the Senate he served 16 years in the House representing Vermont’s at-large district. Senator Sanders identifies himself as a Democratic Socialist and is a champion of progressive causes. In 2014 he told The Nation he’s “prepared to run” for president in 2016.

We hope you’ll be there as Overheard with Evan Smith begins a fifth season of interviews featuring engaging conversations with fascinating people. The show airs on PBS stations nationally and presents a wide range of thoughtmakers and tastemakers from the fields of politics, journalism, business, arts, sports and more. Please join us and be part of the studio audience at this taping with Senator Bernie Sanders. And don’t forget you can watch past episodes anytime at klru.org/overheard.

This Overheard taping is co-presented with The Texas Tribune and will be livestreamed as part of its Conversation Series. Tune in to watch or find more event information at texastribune.org/events.

KLRU News Briefs: EdTech in Spotlight at SXSWedu, Senate and House Pass Key Bills

SXSWedu is turned 5 this year, and at this year’s conference everyone was buzzing about education technology. One session, hosted by EdTech Action Founder and CEO Scott Lipton and Manor ISD Chief Academic Officer Debbie Hester, brought together educators, developers, and people from education businesses, to figure out how to put more “ed” into EdTech. We take you inside the room on Saturday during PBS NewsHour Weekend – and in the video above.

Hester told us Manor ISD is proud to have a 1:1 student-to-iPad ratio in its schools. But, she said, there are different levels of implementation depending on the class and the teacher, which is something she’d like to see improved upon.

“There are sometimes things that are purchased for teachers and then we’re saying ‘Here you go, go and implement it.’ And if we don’t give the professional development, the opportunities to be able to say this is how it’s going to impact your [teaching] then there is a little bit of frustration,” Hester said. “That’s why today was so important to me because I learned ways to break down those barriers.”

Lipton’s group hosts the third largest EdTech meetup in the world here in Austin. The session at SXSWedu allowed more networking among people from across the country.

“There is no good technology without good implementation and good teachers,” Lipton said. “The outcome of this is for everyone to stop talking and take action around it. We all made commitments to take these things out into the world, to stay in touch with each other, and try to make some of these things happen.”

Our Sunday story comes from our partners at The Texas Tribune. In their weekly political Roundup, Multimedia Reporter Alana Rocha looks back at key measures which passed in the Senate and in the House this week – including a “Campus Carry” bill and a border security measure. You can find that story here.

 KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour Weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. 

 

KLRU News Brief: ‘Dreamers’ and Lawmakers Await Decision on Pres. Obama’s Immigration Action

On Saturday during PBS NewsHour Weekend, our KLRU News Brief looks at the recent court injunction of President Obama’s two immigration programs: an expansion of DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, and the implementation of DAPA, which allows parents of lawful resident children to be free of deportation and to obtain work permits. On Monday, the Obama Administration appealed the injunction.

Denise Gilman, UT Law Professor and Director of the school’s Immigration Clinic, told us the final decision about the legality of the program probably won’t be made for months or even years. For now it’s on hold, but Gilman believes we’ll know in the next few weeks if the DACA expansion and DAPA can be implemented in the meantime.

Governor Greg Abbott filed the lawsuit while he was Texas Attorney General. He accuses President Obama of ignoring the law.

“We have in the President’s executive order, an action in utter violation of the Constitution – of the President trying to circumvent around Congress and impose his own dictatorial mandates concerning immigration laws in this nation.” Governor Abbott said on February 18th. “The decision by Judge Hanen was far more than a victory for Texas and the other 25 states who joined us. This was a victory for America, and for the rule of law, and a victory for the Constitution. I am confident that as this case works its way up through the appellate process we will continue to win.”

Juan and Mizraim Belman are young immigration activists and members of the University Leadership Initiative. They crossed the border in 2003 from Mexico. Juan is a student at UT, Mizraim is a Junior at Crockett High School. They have two younger brothers who were born in the U.S., so if DAPA is implemented their parents will qualify to obtain legal status. In 2011, their father was detained and began deportation proceedings.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen, if he was going to get deported. In my mind I didn’t know if we were going to have to go back or if I was going to have to stay here by myself,” Juan said. “It was my first year at UT, my first semester, and all these things were going on and I didn’t know what to do.”

The family hired a lawyer and paid a $5,000 fine. In 2013 their father’s case was administratively closed because the court had too many other cases and he wasn’t seen as a priority for deportation. Both men are hopeful the courts will uphold President Obama’s action.

“I was crying out of happiness when Obama announced the expansion of DACA and DAPA because I knew all the hard work and organizing had paid off,” Juan said. “And I knew my parents would have the opportunity to receive a work permit and stay in the U.S. But now, with this injunction, it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

We followed the brothers at the State Capitol earlier this week where they lobbied lawmakers to continue providing in-state tuition for undocumented students who graduate from Texas high schools. Our partners at The Texas Tribune released a poll today showing Texans are split on that issue. You can find the poll results and analysis from the Tribune’s Ross Ramsey here.

You can see this story in the video above.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour Weekend on Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. We won’t have News Briefs for the next two weeks due to our pledge drive. But, you can find our previous local and state stories here and our American Graduate stories here

American Graduate: Dual Language Students Celebrate Tet New Year

The Austin ISD school board voted to expand its Spanish dual language program to two middle schools starting next school year. But Spanish isn’t the only language in the district’s dual language classrooms – Summitt Elementary is the district’s only Vietnamese dual language program. On Saturday during PBS NewsHour Weekend our KLRU News Brief goes inside that program, as students celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese New Year, and the Year of the Goat.

Olivia Hernandez, AISD’s Director of Bilingual Education says learning a second language fosters “academic and cognitive development” and that the goal for these students is for them to graduate “bilingual, bicultural and biliterate.”

Two teachers are assigned to each classroom. One is ESL certified and will teach the children language arts and social sciences in English.  She’s paired with a teacher who is bilingually certified in Vietnamese and will teach math and science in Vietnamese.

“We’re adding a second language, and we’re not eradicating their native language,” said Hernandez. “Language is the most important item or piece in identity of a person. If you lose your native language, you’re losing part of your identity.”

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. This story is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx. 

KLRU News Brief: Huston-Tillotson Clinic to Increase Access to Mental Health Care in East Austin

On Sunday during PBS NewsHour Weekend our KLRU News Brief takes a look at a partnership between The University of Texas’ Dell Medical School and Huston-Tillotson University which aims to expand mental health care to under-served residents in East Austin.

A clinic inside the Sandra Joy Anderson Community Health and Wellness Center at Huston-Tillotson, which was funded by a major gift from Austin Civil Rights pioneer Ada Anderson, will open this summer. It will also offer an opportunity for medical student training. Austin Travis County Integral Care will act as the health provider for mental and behavioral health services. CommUnity Care will operate the facility.

There is currently a shortage in mental health care providers and funding for mental health services in East Austin. Partners involved in the clinic also talk about a stigma surrounding mental health in Austin’s under-served communities.

“I think that there are certain cultural issues related to even acknowledging that issues exist. And part of our effort here is to break down that barrier,” said Dr. Larry L. Earvin, President and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University.

“It only makes sense to treat the whole person, and not have the community mental health center be on one side of town, and have the clinic services operating in another location,” Austin Travis County Integral Care CEO David Evans said. “We’re working diligently with the medical school to make sure that the providers will be able to relate to the community.”

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour Weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. 

American Graduate: AISD High Schools Get Creative in Teaching Core Classes

On Saturday during PBS NewsHour Weekend our KLRU News Brief takes a look at AISD’s Creative Learning InitiativeAISD has partnered with MindPOP, an association of art educators in Austin, to bring arts and culture into the classroom. It’s a grant-funded program out of The Kennedy Center. For our story we visited Crockett High School, which implemented CLI at the beginning of this academic year.

The grant was written by the school’s fine arts teachers to further integrate arts into the core curriculum. Dr. Robyn Turner, Assistant Principal at Crockett, says the program has been successful thus far, and faculty and staff are enthusiastically implementing the initiative into their curriculum.

“We’re not doing CLI to teach to the test at all but it just so happens that creativity, imagination, [and] working together cause the mind to internalize a lot of what maybe they would not have internalized before,” Turner told us.

These CLI activities occur twice a week. Teachers attend professional development workshops to learn how to integrate CLI into their daily lesson plans.

Shana King, a biology teacher, said the initiative is a way to teach kids on a “emotional level.”

“It doesn’t seem like ‘creative’ would go with Biology but it really does,” King said. “We have the kids trying to make their own ideas and making machines out of their bodies to act out some really complicated scientific processes.”

You can watch the story online in the video above.

On Sunday, our story comes from our partners at The Texas Tribune. Multimedia Reporter Alana Rocha looks at the debate around Texas’ Hazlewood Act, which offers Texas veterans free tuition. The program has seen costs grow exponentially in the last five years after allowing veterans to transfer unused credit hours to their children and it could could be in trouble this legislative session if lawmakers fail to address funding issues. The story is part of the Tribune’s State of Mind series. You can watch the story online here.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. Our Saturday story is part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you! Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx. 

African-American Girls in Central Texas Outperform the Boys

GIRLS GRAD RATES
Girl Grad Rates

Courtesy: E3 Alliance

Data from the E3 Alliance show non-low income African-American girls in Central Texas have the highest graduation rate of any group, around 98% for the Class of 2013. 87% of low income African-American girls graduated in the same year. We took a closer look at the data for this weekend’s News Briefs during PBS NewsHour Weekend.

“Our low income black women are not performing at the same level as the not-low income black women but they still are outperforming our boys across the board,” E3 Alliance Executive Director Susan Dawson said. “They’re wanting to become leaders, they’re wanting to demonstrate they have the capabilities to succeed.  In fact, up to three-fourths of young African-American women are enrolling directly into college, as opposed to some student bodies where just 35% or 40% enroll directly into college.”

We wondered why the boys are falling behind, so we look at that on Sunday.

“Enter any kindergarten and you’ll see just as many boys as girls. But, by the time they graduate it’s completely a different number,” Dawson said. “The boys at first are very academic, but by the third or fourth grade you have more of them placed in special ed, you have more that are suspended. Once you get referred to special ed, it’s very hard to get back out.”

 You can find more Central Texas education data on the E3 Alliance’s website.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. Both of these stories are part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx. 

Texas Tribune: New Statewide Bid to End Texting Behind the Wheel

Our Saturday story during PBS NewsHour comes from our partners at The Texas Tribune. It discusses whether this will finally be the year when a ban on texting while driving becomes law statewide. You can watch it in the video above.

Jennifer Smith lost her mother in a 2008 car crash in Oklahoma when a distracted driver using his cell phone T-boned her vehicle. Smith advocates for stopdistractions.org, a grassroots organization that raises awareness of the dangers of distracted driving.

“And from that moment on – a phone call, a text message, nothing is worth a life,” Smith said.

This will be the fifth legislative session when Texas lawmakers will propose a bill for a statewide ban on texting while driving. A 2011 bill by Republican state representative Tom Craddick passed in favor of a ban but was vetoed by governor Rick Perry who said the law would “micromanage the behavior of adults.”

So far, 44 states have a ban regarding texting while driving and many local communities in Texas have bans in place. Austin’s new distracted driving law went into effect January 1, 2015.

Alva Ferdinand, a public health researcher at Texas A&M University completed a study on such laws. Her findings prove that these laws are “having an impact on roadway fatalities.”

“Not only will this initiative saves lives, it will save the state medical expenses as well as loss of time and work wages,” Smith said.

Smith will be among the 25 families at the state capitol on Feb. 3 to discuss the bill. You can find an extended version of this story here.

Our Sunday story is from KLRU’s Arts in Context Shorts series. It is about Roots & Rhythms, an after-school drumming program. You can watch that story here.

Following State of the Union, the Price of Higher Ed in Austin

During the State of the Union Tuesday evening, President Obama focused part of his address on the price of higher education. This weekend during PBS NewsHour, we take a closer look at his proposals.

“By the end of this decade, two in three job openings will require some higher education. Two in three. And yet, we still live in a country where too many bright, striving Americans are priced out of the education they need. It’s not fair to them, and it’s not smart for our future,” President Obama said.

In our Saturday story, we speak with Dr. David Laude, Senior Vice Provost for Enrollment and Graduation Management at the University of Texas. Dr. Laude is tasked with increasing UT’s 4 year graduation rate to 70%. To reach that goal, the school is focusing on low-income students.

“There was an article that had a pretty blunt headline that said ‘rich kids graduate, poor kids often do not.’ If you take a look at whether or not a student’s going to graduate, the most important indicator if they will struggle is if they come from an under-resourced background,” Laude said. “They don’t really have the money to be able to hang in there and to graduate in 5 years or 6 years. Yes, it’s possible, some of them will do it, but every time they do it they’re taking out more loans. Every time they’re doing it, they’re running up more debt.”

We also spoke to Jeff Webster, Assistant VP for Research and Analytical Services at TG. TG is a nonprofit corporation which “offers resources to help students and families plan and prepare for college, learn the basics of money management, and repay their federal student loans.”

You can see our Saturday story in the video above.

On Sunday, our story looks at President Obama’s other higher education proposal: free community college. Webster told us about a TG study that found graduates with a four-year degree, if they started at a community college, “tend to have no less debt than someone who started at a four year school, and sometimes they have even more debt.”

We spoke with Neil Vickers, Austin Community College’s VP of Finance & Budget, about that survey and about President Obama’s proposal.

“We’re very interested in affordability for our students. It’s actually in our mission, to provide affordable higher education,” Vickers said. “When you just focus on tuition, to what extent does that really get to the root of the problem? I think part of the conversation is that a community college student can take out a similar sized loan as though they were at the university. I think there needs to be other discussions about loan programs and maybe this will serve as a good catalyst for those.”

The Texas Association of Community Colleges released this statement in response to President Obama’s plan for free community college:

“TACC has not yet voted to take a position, but, as a whole, the community college presidents in Texas appreciate that President Obama has recognized the importance of community colleges and the importance he has put on providing students with pathways to the workforce and to continue their education.”

You can see that story in the video below.

KLRU News Briefs air locally during PBS NewsHour weekend, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 6:30. Both of these stories are part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas. Do you have an American Graduate story idea? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at CivicSummit@klru.org, post a comment, or tweet at us using #amgradtx.