John Whitehead's Commentary
Move Over, Traffic Court, It’s Time for a New Money-Making Scheme—School Truancy Laws Jail Parents and Levy Excessive Fines
We are now five years out from the worst financial crisis in modern history, and still the yoke around the neck of the average American seems to tighten with every new tax, fine, fee and law adopted by our so-called representatives. Meanwhile, the three branches of government (Executive, Legislative and Judicial) and the agencies under their command—Defense, Commerce, Education, Homeland Security, Justice, Treasury, etc.—have switched their allegiance to the Corporate State with its unassailable pursuit of profit at all costs and by any means possible.
As a result, we are now ruled by a government consumed with squeezing every last penny out of the population and seemingly unconcerned if essential freedoms are trampled in the process. This profits-over-people mindset has taken various forms in recent years, ranging from the rise of privatized, for-profit prisons which require the states to keep their jails full to capacity to the overcriminalization phenomenon which has subjected Americans to a slew of inane laws that outlaw such innocuous activities as making and selling unpasteurized goat cheese, cultivating certain types of orchids, and feeding a whale. Included in the mix are the preponderance of red light cameras, sold to communities as a means of minimizing traffic accidents at intersections but in fact are just a vehicle for levying nuisance fines against drivers often guilty of little more than making a right-hand turn on a red light.
The most recent ploy to separate taxpayers from their hard-earned dollars and render them criminals comes in the form of school truancy laws. Disguised as well-meaning attempts to resolve attendance issues in the schools, these truancy laws are nothing less than stealth maneuvers aimed at enriching school districts and court systems alike through excessive fines and jail sentences, while the ones being singled out for punishment—more often than not from middle- to low-income families—are the very ones who can least afford it.
Under this increasingly popular system of truancy enforcement, instead of giving students detention or some other in-school punishment for “unauthorized” absences, schools are now opting to fine parents and force them or their kids to serve jail time. (“Unauthorized” is the key word here, of course, since schools retain the right to determine whether an absence sanctioned by a parent or even a doctor is acceptable.)
For example, California students are ticketed for missing or being late to school. One ticket for tardiness can cost a family $250. Tardiness is a particular problem in Los Angeles, where the city’s poor transit infrastructure and overcrowded buses often leave student passengers stranded at the bus stops. According to the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, 12,000 students received tickets for truancy in Los Angeles in 2008. Of those students, about 80% received tickets simply for being late to school. In order to avoid a $250 ticket, some parents from low-income households go so far as to keep their children home from school if there is any chance they will be late. As Barbara Ehrenreich, writing for the New York Times, points out, “it’s an ingenious anti-truancy policy that discourages parents from sending their youngsters to school.”
In 2011, more than 400 parents in Baltimore City were brought up on truancy charges because their children had missed more than 15 days of school, while a dozen parents were sentenced to jail. One mother of four school-aged children, Barbara Gaskins, was jailed for 10 days (served on five consecutive weekends) after her son allegedly missed 103 out of 130 days of school. Her son insists he was in school but wasn’t marked present.
Parents in Florida can be charged with a second-degree misdemeanor and face up to two months in jail if their kids have 15 or more unexcused absences from school over the course of three months. Truancy laws in Alabama, Texas, and North Carolina, among other states, have also resulted in parents doing jail time for their kids’ absenteeism.
As problematic as it may be for states to levy excessive fines and jail time on families that, in many cases, are already struggling to make ends meet and stay together, it’s the motives behind these programs that are particularly troubling. Much like the profit incentives behind privatized prisons and red light traffic cameras, there are also profit motives driving most of the states that are pushing for stricter truancy laws and establishing truancy courts for those parents and students unlucky enough to run afoul of them. Those profit motives range from state funding in exchange for proof of higher school attendance (a clear factor behind the rapid adoption of RFID tracking badges in certain Houston schools), to increased revenue from fines and more bodies in the jails.
Consider, for example, the case of Diane Tran, a 17-year-old honor student. She was sent to jail for 24 hours and forced to pay a $100 fine for breaking Texas’ truancy laws, which define truancy as “missing three full or partial days in a four-week period, or 10 days in six months.” Tran, who had been helping support her family by working two jobs on top of her strenuous schoolwork, was shown no mercy by the court. Unfortunately, Tran’s case is standard operating procedure throughout the United States as more and more states and localities make truancy enforcement a high priority.
In Texas, where schools have taken truancy enforcement to extreme lengths in an effort to qualify for state funds based upon having the highest attendance rates possible, truancy cases ballooned from 85,000 incidents to 120,000 between 2005 and 2009. More truancy cases mean increased profits for truancy courts, which function much like traffic court, and hefty profits for the state. Dallas courts, for example, pull in roughly $2 million from prosecuting 35,000 truancy cases per year. As Deborah Fowler, deputy director of the legal advocacy group Texas Appleseed, has noted, “They’ve developed a whole system in Dallas that has to feed itself to justify its existence.” The targets, of course, are school children and their families.
Unfortunately, these money rackets posing as courts of law are not unique to any one state. In Lebanon, Pennsylvania, the school district filed 8,000 truancy violations between 2005 and 2010, collecting $1.3 million in fines. The district is currently facing a class-action lawsuit from parents subjected to fines far in excess of the $300 limit set out by state law. One plaintiff, single parent Omary Rodriguez-Fuentes, received 29 truancy tickets over three years, totaling almost $7,000. Incredibly, in an attempt to pay off the fines, Rodriguez-Fuentes had to resort to using revenue from his monthly disability checks.
As illustrated by Rodriguez-Fuentes’ case, truancy laws tend to be applied most vigorously against the most defenseless members of society, punishing those who need the most help in continuing their education with little regard for the root causes of absenteeism, which tend to be family problems, financial issues, mental illness, and simply being sick. For example, a judge in Rhode Island threatened a 13-year-old student suffering from sickle-cell anemia and his mother with arrest and jail time. The student had been missing school due to extreme bouts of pain. In fact, he was ordered to attend school on a particular day in February 2010. Once there, however, the school had to call an ambulance because of his critical condition.
Truancy laws have gotten so absurd that adults are even being put in detention facilities for skipping school when they were children. For example, Francisco de Luna, an 18-year-old who racked up $11,000 in truancy fines over the course of five years, was sentenced to 132 days in jail. De Luna’s truancy was related to the death of his father at age 13, at which point his family’s finances and his own mental health faced a steep decline and he ended up dropping out of school.
Elizabeth Diaz, also 18 years old, received 18 days in jail for failure to pay $1,600 in fines imposed on her when she was 14 years old. Diaz’s past truancy was related to health problems—bipolar disorder and fibromyalgia. Diaz was set to graduate on time until she was jailed, at which point the school withdrew her enrollment, causing her to miss exams she was required to take before graduation.
Despite outcry from parents and activist groups alike, strident truancy laws are still being proposed and strengthened in cities across the country. Officials in Washington, DC, are currently debating proposals that would allow Child and Family Services Agency officials to investigate cases of truancy for minors up to the age of 17, a significant expansion of the city’s already extant authority to punish parents and children with fines and jail time.
Living under the threat of zero tolerance policies, tagged and tracked with surveillance devices, and facing exorbitant fines and jail time in cases of truancy, America’s youth are now finding themselves in a protracted battle brought about by those whom they are supposed to trust: teachers, police officers, and courts of law. Tasked with protecting young people, these once-trusted figures and institutions are instead serving the interests of the state, which is less concerned about educating the next generation, and more concerned with encouraging obedience and extracting wealth.
All the while, America continues to find itself ranking the lowest among developed nations in terms of quality of public education. Despite an array of standardized tests meant to boost student performance, young people are not taught higher-level thinking skills, putting them at a distinct disadvantage upon entering college or the workforce. It’s a dire situation made worse by the profit-over-people, total-security mindset that has overtaken our governing institutions and undermined our freedoms.