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. 

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

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. 

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. 

Straus Re-Elected House Speaker

Representative Joe Straus will return to his role as House Speaker after a landslide win over Representative Scott Turner.

Turner has worked over the past year to curry favor with conservatives in order to unseat Rep. Straus as Speaker.  It was a campaign that led Straus to make veiled comments about Turner’s efforts to turn fellow Republicans against him in the vote for Speaker.

“Leading up to this day, a small number sought to divide us with misleading and personal attacks,” Straus said after being sworn in as Speaker. “But you can not effectively govern this House by dividing it.”

Straus garnered 127 votes over Turner’s 19.  This is the first time since 1975 that the House has held a contested vote for the Speaker of the House.

News Briefs: Cyclo-Cross Championship, First 10-1 Council Sworn In

CYCLO CROSS FOR AIR

Cyclo-Cross is a hybrid sport that’s gaining popularity around the world. This weekend, Zilker Park is hosting the 2015 USA Cycling Cyclo-cross National Championships. The event is free and open to the public and runs through Sunday. You can see our story about the event on Saturday during PBS NewsHour.

On Sunday evening, our story is about the historic swearing-in of Austin’s first 10-1 City Council.

“The excitement in this city and in this room is palpable, and the expectations are high.  And on this dias, the sense of responsibility is felt and it is real,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler told the crowd.

“Today is not about the 11 of us being sworn in before you. It’s about the community throughout Austin that, after suffering decades of under-representation and neglect in this building, will finally have a voice,” District 3 Council Member Sabino Renteria said.

All 11 members took the oath of office Tuesday evening.

You can see both stories this weekend during PBS NewsHour Weekend, Saturday and Sunday at 6:30pm. 

 

 

American Graduate: Alternatives and opportunities starting in Pre-K

During PBS NewsHour this weekend, our stories are both part of KLRU’s American Graduate initiative, which is aimed at increasing awareness around the dropout crisis in Central Texas.

On Saturday, we spoke with Austin Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and AISD’s Director of Early Childhood Jacquie Porter about free all day Pre-K for qualified families. The two entities are teaming up to enroll more qualified four year olds in prekindergarten. Pre-K is free for children who have limited-English proficiency, are economically disadvantaged, those whose parents are active military or were killed in action, for children who are homeless, or who have ever been in CPS care.

“Pre-k benefits kids in a number of ways. We think academically, but pre-k also benefits children socially, getting along, taking turns. And it’s the best time for learning, so we want to make sure we capitalize on that and make sure kids are where they’re supposed to be when they start kindergarten,” Porter says.

For our Sunday story we traveled to Bastrop to hear about Colorado River Collegiate Academy – the district’s early college high school. The school opened this year and offers students the opportunity to earn their associates degree from Austin Community College before they graduate high school. The degree is free for families. The district is targeting students who are low-income or who will be the first in their family to attend college.

You can see an extended version that story in the video above.

Both stories will air locally as a KLRU News Briefs during PBS NewsHour Weekend at 6:30pm. 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. 

 

American Graduate: Goodwill School Puts Adult Drop-outs Back on Track

The Goodwill Excel Center, which opened its doors in August, is a regular charter high school – except its students are adults, aged 19-50, who dropped out of high school. They teach all of the traditional high school courses, with students picking up where they left off.

Many people who drop out of high school eventually earn their GED, but Head of School Dr. Billy Harden says there is a big difference in earning potential between a GED and a regular high school diploma.

“We’re looking at possibly anywhere in the range of a $2,000 to $9,000 difference if a student gets their high school diploma,” Dr. Harden said. “I’m already seeing it changing their lives. I’m seeing more of our students coming each day and the learning is becoming more intrinsic. It’s starting to look and feel like a way to empower themselves. So, they not only have the ability to say ‘I have my high school diploma, but I’m a little smarter than I was when I got here,’ and I think that’s very important.”

We spoke to Matilda Zamarripa, who dropped out her senior year of high school. Matilda has worked successfully in the beauty industry for almost 20 years but has always wanted to earn her high school diploma.

“You kind of carry that little secret around. Like oh, I’ve never finished,” Matilda said. “My daughter definitely inspired me when she was graduating high school. Going to her graduation two years ago reminded me like ‘wow, I never got to experience this’ but I got to experience it through her. She’s now on her second year at Texas State University and that really inspired me you know, I really want[ed] to go back to school.”

You can hear more about Matilda and the Goodwill Excel Center in the video above.

A shortened version of this story will air locally as a KLRU News Briefs during PBS NewsHour Weekend, Sunday, November 23 at 6:30pm. 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: Adler, Martinez Debate Leadership Qualities

On Thursday Austin Mayoral runoff candidates Steve Adler and Mike Martinez recorded Civic Summit: Mayoral Runoff Conversation, an hour-long discussion about the leadership qualities each would employ if they are elected on December 16. Our Sunday News Brief includes excerpts from that debate. The entire debate is online and will air on KLRU on Friday, November 21 at 8pm.

A point of discussion in this election has been what the mayor’s role will be in wrangling discussion and debate among the ten new city council members.

“Whether you’re a district council member from east or west Austin, your issues are going to be the same,” explained Martinez.  ”As mayor, you find that common ground, and you build on that common ground.”

“We have one city here,” said Adler.  ”And we either move together as a whole city or none of us are going to be moving together.

You can watch the entire debate online here.

KLRU News Briefs air locally every Saturday and Sunday evening during PBS NewsHour Weekend.