Crime & Truancy
A judge threw a 17-year-old 11th grade honor student from Willis High School in jail after she missed school again.
Judge Lanny Moriarty said last month Diane Tran was in his Justice of the Peace court for truancy and he warned her then to stop missing school. But she recently missed classes again so Wednesday he issued a summons and had her arrested in open court when she appeared.
Tran said she works a full-time job, a part-time job and takes advanced placement and dual credit college level courses. She said she is often too exhausted to wake up in time for school. Sometimes she misses the entire day, she said. Sometimes she arrives after attendance has been taken.
It’s tempting to chalk this up as a clear abuse of judicial discretion and leave it at that. It’s tempting because it is an abuse of discretion, but we really shouldn’t leave it at that. We should instead be asking ourselves why there was a crime for which the judge could do this. We should be asking ourselves what kind of pressures exist to make this a crime, and perhaps lead the judge to believe what he did was okay.
A while back, the Secretary of Education took some shots at Texas (the state in which the above occurred, as it happens) for… among other things, attendance problems. I wrote the following:
Largely, though, the decision to stay in school or drop out is a personal and family one. When we talk about what influence parents have or schools have over results, this is one of those things that is most home-driven. If a parent doesn’t want their kid to drop out, they can’t really drop out (until they are emancipated). While it might be possible for a kid that wants to attend school to be forced by his parents to drop out, that’s generally unlikely.
So what is the state’s role here? Well, the state can create truancy laws, the schools can hire truancy officers. And the kids can be dragged to school kicking and screaming. When a kid doesn’t want to be there, and when the parents don’t care, it might be worthwhile to question the degree to which they are likely to actually receive an education. I suppose I am skeptical. And I am also skeptical that we can bring them in by making school a cooler place to be. But I could be wrong on that! And, in the greater scheme of things, it may be good policy.
But it’s not indicative of much. A governor with presidential aspirations can fix all of these problems with one fell swoop: Hire a bunch of truancy officers at $100,000 a year (more spending!), have them drag everyone to school by the ear (better attendance!), and pass through socially promoted graduations (higher graduation rates!).
If anything, my post was too sanguine on the ability of parents to force their kids to attend school. Especially when you’re dealing with older kids. Which answers the next question: Why go after kids when we should go after the parents! As surely as we have the sad story above of going after kids, I can paint you one about a parent that’s too busy working a full-time job that can’t police their kids during the day.
My home state, “Arapaho,” is less than pleased with its high school drop-out rates. Arapaho has some of the more liberal laws in the country as it pertains to compulsory attendance. It goes back to the days where kids were often expected to drop out and work on the family farm. As other states firmed up, Arapaho let sleeping dogs lie. Until now, that is. Now, something has to be done. Such as… we should pass a law! Sixteen year-olds should not be allowed so easily to drop out of school. Of course, this law would have to be enforced. And how do we enforce this law? And against whom?
Now, ideally, you’re not just getting punitive. You’re finding out why kids are dropping out and looking for ways for them to continue their education if they can’t or won’t get to school every day. You’re trying to fill this gap. That’s desirable, but it’s also hard. Instead, the focus is likely going to be on trying to force them to go to school. With gavels, if necessary. The solution for Miss Tran is for her to cut back on her other responsibilities. A more generous safety net might do that for this case in particular. What’s more likely than a generous safety net? Punitive measures. Somewhere in between is a more flexible schooling system, allowing her to educate herself on her own schedule. Allowing kids around here to work on the farm and continue their education.
But then we couldn’t track attendance. The local school would lose funding. Somebody, somewhere, might be making a profit off this. The Secretary of Education could still paint this as a failure since we all know how kids are supposed to be educated and that involves a building, five days a week of attendance, and a certified teacher.