Dallas County’s Truancy Court has spent the summer in the spotlight. The U.S. Department of Justice is looking into allegations that students were denied their constitutional rights. The County rejects the charges. Meet two kids who’ve been through system.
With the window AC humming in the background, Brandon Jefferson sits frustrated at the kitchen table in this small South Dallas rental home. He shares it with his disabled mom Pearl Caballero and their adopted Black Labrador puppy, Sam. The 18 year-old graduate of Mesquite Academy can’t get a driver’s license, a job to drive to, or enlist in the military because he still owes truancy court fees.
“I think it’s really unfair because it happened when I was a juvenile. Then when I’m grown, it stopped me from furthering my life.”
Ten late arrivals to, or absences from school trigger a notice to show up in truancy court. Brandon’s mom, with chronic rheumatoid arthritis, accepts some of the blame for her son’s tardiness to school.
“There are times I’m completely immobile,” says Caballero. “So getting my other kids ready for school and trying to even get myself a glass of water or put on something to wear or even getting to the bathroom sometimes would be really hard for me. Brandon, being the oldest and strongest of my kids, he will be the one to have to stay and help me.”
Caballero petitioned the court for help, and some fines were reduced, but not all. They still owe $1,700.
“They won’t accept a partial payment. I mean, if I could pay $50 a month even, you know, they won’t even accept that. They refuse anything except for money.”
Caballero lives on $700 a month from Social Security and can’t afford the fine. Attorney Deborah Fowler, with Texas Appleseed, a non-profit, says Brandon’s being penalized by adult criminal laws even though he was a minor, and graduated from high school, which is what truancy courts are about. Fowler says only Texas and Wyoming put truant kids in adult courts.
“It’s not a crime any adult could commit,” says Fowler. “And yet in Dallas County we are trying those cases in adult criminal court settings and convicting those kids of a crime rather than handling the cases in juvenile courts as is done in a majority of the rest of the states.”
Appleseed is one of three organizations that have brought a truancy complaint to the Department of Justice, which hasn’t ruled yet. Dallas County can’t specifically comment on Brandon’s case, but County Judge Clay Jenkins defends the truancy court system.
“The state set out the rules,” says Jenkins. “The state says the way you deal with truant children is through a court system. The schools shall file these cases, so we tried to turn that court system into a diversion activity where we get these kids the case managers, we get them the resources they need so they can graduate.”
Jenkins says the county’s truancy courts continue to reform. For example, constables no longer handcuff kids in school when they’re hauled off to court. And for students like Pedro Collazo, the truancy court diversion program works. He says he never would’ve graduated from Samuel High School without this program.
“I would not, at all. I think I would have followed the same steps I did before and never learned my lesson.”
Collazo says he’s a truancy court success story, now in his first year of community college.