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Elementary Truancy

It’s a typical two-story red brick house on a typical street in a typical Frisco neighborhood. The yard has been mown and edged, the hedges are clipped and there’s a well-worn toy car parked in the side yard. Nothing in this ordinary suburban scene suggests that a serial truant lives here: the subject, no less, of Collin County Justice Court Case No. 32-TP-13-00207.

Inside, Sabrina Tariq and her daughter are comfortably ensconced in the family room, mom pajama-clad on the sectional, 5-year-old Leanna circling the toy-strewn room and whistling, while the vast flat-screen assaults us with KERA’s summer programming. A butterfly-princess-glitter-wand makes a beeping noise, and Leanna picks it up, grinning shyly. The kindergartener is tall for her age, with raven hair and expressive brown eyes. She spells her name for me in slow, deliberate tones, clinging to her mom’s side.
Leanna’s teacher reports that she “follows classroom rules” and “always participates.” She never disrupts class, loiters at the mall or stashes marijuana in her backpack. But this bashful girl snuggling up to her mom, butterfly-princess-glitter-wand in hand, landed in court a few months ago. And now her mother has a stain on her permanent record.
Her offense? Leanna was late to school.
On Tariq’s official Collin County record, the offense appears as “Failure to Attend School – Parent/Guardian Contributing.” It’s a Class C misdemeanor, the least serious criminal offense, punishable by fines ($175 in Tariq’s case), but the bigger punishment for both mom and daughter was the embarrassing court appearance, coupled with a four-hour wait that required Leanna to miss school.
The irony is not lost on the many families who’ve had to attend truancy court in Collin County – not for their wayward high-schoolers, but for their 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds who just can’t seem to get out the door fast enough. Though Texas truancy laws and individual district policies are designed for older kids, elementary families – and even a few preschoolers, like Leanna – get caught in the gears of Collin County’s well-oiled anti-truancy machine. Many parents are not even aware until their court summons arrives that aiding and abetting tardiness can go on their permanent records. But for these families, the courtroom becomes the place to hash out their organizational problems, get a court-ordered parenting class and maybe even learn how to get their children dressed in the morning, all on the taxpayer dollar.
Frisco and Allen are leading the way in this truancy revolution that’s taking place in the suburbs. It was only in the last decade or so that the districts started taking truancy seriously. When rigorous enforcement proved effective at the secondary level in Frisco, elementary campuses begged the district to begin cracking down on their kids too; over the last two years, Frisco and Allen combined have sent 333 elementary and preschool kids to court – and that number is rising.
“A lot of people see the number of truancy filings and think we’re out to get people,” says Frisco ISD Assistant Superintendent Doug Zambiasi. “In fact the opposite is true – we’re really out to help people.
“That’s really what it’s all about for us – following the law, trying to help people.”

Saved by the bell (not)
Tariq and Leanna accumulated 17 unexcused absences – a combination of run-of-the-mill tardies, unexcused doctor’s visits prompted by asthma flare-ups and one family trip that Leanna’s teachers were aware of and had approved. (Note to parents: In Frisco ISD, approved does not mean excused.) Doctor’s appointments can be excused with a note, and even tardies caused by traffic problems can be erased if enough students are made late by the incident. But without sick notes or widespread roadway dilemmas, any tardy – whether by one minute or five hours – counts as one day missed. They can add up quickly.

When your child reaches 10 absences in a six-month period, school districts are required to take legal action, though many appear to ignore the law altogether for elementary kids. In Collin County, the enforcers of the law include truancy officers employed by the school districts and Justice of the Peace John Payton, a one-man truancy crusade. At 17 1/2 years of age, he was the youngest judge ever elected in the state of Texas; he took the bench in 1991 at age 18, marginally older than the truant high school students required to call him “Sir.” More than two decades later, having been re-elected four times, his initial goal to get kids to school on time has become his passion. “We make a difference here,” he explains. “We get to help people change their lives.”

Though he doesn’t have a law degree, Judge Payton, father of one teenage daughter, is a stickler for enacting the letter of the law as kindly as he can. He has underlined, highlighted and lovingly abused his copy of the Texas Education Code, which he referred to several times when I visited his Plano courtroom.
Section 25.093 outlines the consequences for “Parent Contributing to Nonattendance,” which include a day in court, fines to pay and a Class C misdemeanor on the parent’s record. “Failure to Attend School,” addressed in Section 25.094, applies the same consequences to kids 12 and older who are at least partly responsible for their own nonattendance.
The law refers to children at least 6 years of age, because preschool is not required in Texas; children enrolled in public preschool, however, are subject to the same laws that govern primary and secondary students. While some 4-year-olds don’t attend school at all, those such as Leanna who are enrolled in preschool must be on time or face a court date for nonattendance. And the law does not distinguish between tardies and half- or full-day absences; Section 25.094 states that “days or parts of days missed” count toward truancy. This means a child who consistently arrives a couple minutes late has the same truancy record as a child who arrives halfway through the day, or not at all. (That is, if you live in a district that takes attendance meticulously.)
In recent years, Texas and its truancy policies have received national press because of a few high-profile cases in the DFW area – including a whole district (Dallas) under scrutiny because its officers entered high-school classrooms with handcuffs to arrest truant students.

Texas Senate Bill 1234 was introduced in the last legislative session to refine the state’s laws across all grade levels, though it targeted truancy among older children. (It passed the House and Senate but was vetoed by Governor Perry in June.) When asked how SB 1234 would affect elementary truancy, a Senate staffer seemed a little lost – then offered that this wasn’t really the problem.
Families who’ve racked up fines for being tardy to second grade would likely disagree. Though the number of elementary truancy cases is far lower than those in middle and high school, hundreds of families in the area – especially in Collin County – go to court for it each year.
And though the law distinguishes between kids younger than 12 and kids 12 and older, it must be applied across the board to be effective, Judge Payton argues.
Which produces the jarring scene of a first-grader standing before the bench to answer for his tardies.
Here comes the judge
In his Allen courtroom one sunny day in June, Judge Payton has nixed the black robes and has his light blue oxford rolled up to the elbows. His tone is kind, conversational – not the vituperative language you hear on daytime court dramas. (Though he does insist that kids tuck in their shirts.) Some of the kids he’s seen only once before, but he talks to them like he’s known them for years. One high-school student presents the judge with his certificate for completing a court-ordered boot camp, and Judge Payton absolutely beams.

Another student is having trouble registering for a similar course. “I will go to blood for this kid,” he booms to his clerk after the student exits the courtroom.
I can’t help but chuckle at his enthusiasm. He shoots me a challenging look. “You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding.”
At times, the courtroom becomes a strange sort of group therapy session, where parents sit at the prosecutor’s table-turned-couch and discuss their woes – from rocky finances to unpredictable traffic to drug-toting children – while Judge Payton listens attentively and offers solutions. The kids stand in the middle of the courtroom digesting their parents’ concerns, and both parties ideally leave the session with a renewed sense of obligation to each other. Judge Payton stresses the importance of helping out Mom or Dad and makes sure each parent understands his responsibilities to keep his child on the straight and narrow.
It’s for this same reason that the judge makes a point of pursuing truancy as early as possible. If these kids are brought in at the elementary level, he says, he will likely never see them in middle or high school. In fact, he reports a recidivism rate of less than .2 percent. “My theory is, if we can breed it out of them before the student can be held accountable for it, and we teach good habits, then that student will become self-reliant, self-motivated,” he says.
Frisco ISD’s Zambiasi agrees. “What we’ve found is that if you can begin to work with families that are struggling to get their kids to school early on, then you see a reduced number of kids you have to see at the secondary level,” he says. “There is a method to our madness.”

You are hereby summoned
Parents might not appreciate the method as they step into court with their third-grader. But Judge Payton says those who don’t crack down on truancy early and often are just plain doing it wrong. “It’s not the code that’s broken,” he asserts. “It’s the people that are executing the code.”
His claim is given credence by the numbers, which show that enforcement levels vary widely among area districts. Your child’s attendance record – and, consequently, your criminal record – might look different if your child were enrolled in Carroll Elementary in Southlake, for example, rather than Carroll Elementary in Frisco.
Frisco ISD keeps rigorous attendance records; Carroll ISD’s attendance records are uneven at best. Two Carroll ISD elementary schools have reported zero unexcused absences for the entire student body for two years running, while another school with similar enrollment reports 28 absences over the same period and a fourth school in the same district nearly 2,900. A representative from the district explained that this huge discrepancy is because of a difference in the way each school records absences, but maintains that district-wide, they enjoy “good student attendance rates and cooperative families who value education and ensure their children are in school.”
Does this mean that families in Southlake care more about getting their kids to school on time? Probably not. Instead, it means that where you live could determine whether you go to court for being tardy. Carroll, in fact, did not refer any elementary families to court during the last two school years. Their enrollment is less than half of Allen’s and less than one-fifth of Frisco’s, and the district doesn’t employ any truancy officers, nor does it have records of how many fines and fees have been collected – because none have been.
According to Judge Payton, the five districts whose truancy cases he sees – Frisco, Allen, Plano, Celina and Lovejoy – are pursuing truancy with the necessary amount of exactitude and verve. “My districts do it right,” the judge says. “Are they going to follow through with what they tell you? Yes. Are some of the parents shocked when they follow through with what they told you? I can’t tell you how many are.”

Frisco began the last school year with a 40-page PowerPoint presentation to staff outlining every detail of the district’s truancy procedures with meticulous relish. This includes the extensive measures Frisco takes to warn parents of accumulating absences. The district notifies parents by letter, voicemail or person-to-person contact at least three times on the road to truancy court, which is two beyond what is required by the state Education Code. Amidst the colorful fonts and occasional clip art, the PowerPoint asserts that “Truancy Charges SHALL be filed” after a student – any student – reaches 10 absences. But the tenor of the presentation echoes Judge Payton’s own mantra; the last slide reads, “We are in this TOGETHER … and together we MAKE A DIFFERENCE.”

Allen attacks truancy with similar gusto – sans PowerPoint – as Allen resident Janine Weaver discovered last school year. Her daughter McKenna (not their real names) was late to school 10 times because of morning meltdowns and wardrobe dilemmas. (“That’s not what we said we were gonna wear—” “Well, I changed my mind!”) On more than one occasion, McKenna was inside the school building but outside her fourth-grade classroom when the bell rang.
After seven tardies, the school sent a letter to Weaver in McKenna’s take-home folder. She also received a very civil voice message from the vice principal. “I never thought I would actually make the 10,” Weaver admits. But a week or so after her daughter’s 10th tardy, Weaver received a call, then three weeks later an email, with two court dates – for the original hearing and a follow-up appearance. The hearings would take place at the courtroom inside Allen High School on school days (excused absences, of course).

Nine-year-old McKenna had no idea what to expect in the courtroom, and neither did Weaver. McKenna asked her mom if it would be like Law & Order or Judge Judy, or if they would cart her off to prison. “Those were real kinds of fears,” Weaver says, “and even though I was saying, ‘No, no, no,’ I think there was a part of her that was unsure.”
Weaver herself was embarrassed. “I just felt like a crummy mom,” she says, even though the problem was simply disorganization, not lack of motivation. “I am vested in her education, and I don’t like letting her be late, and I’m not OK with it,” she says. “It just kind of happened.”
On the big day, they entered the waiting area through a metal detector then sat for two hours in the small, dull room full of blue plastic chairs and impatient families until being ushered in to see Judge Payton.

The courtroom is closer to Judge Judy than Law & Order, with raised bench, generous wood paneling and two tables for defense and prosecution – but no seats for a jury or more than a few curious onlookers. McKenna stood between the two tables and faced Judge Payton, while Weaver sat to her right at the prosecutor’s table and AISD truancy administrator Barbara Barker took notes at the defense table. An armed constable stood guard near the bench. Judge Payton’s clerk temporarily covered the small window in the courtroom door with green file folders, shutting out prying eyes. But to a 9-year-old, it was still a scary place.

“I think a courtroom should be for crimes – bad crimes – and that stuff,” explains McKenna. She tried to recount to me some of what Judge Payton told her, but she couldn’t remember most of it, because she was “like really concentrated, and my brain was jumbled off with different thoughts about this.”
What were you thinking? I ask.
“I was thinking, ‘What would happen if we accidentally do it again? What happens if other people found out? What happens if it gets worse? What happens if my mom gets in trouble when I’m not there? And that stuff.’”

Better shape up

“Lay out three outfits the night before – then in the morning, you’ll only have three choices.” Such were the common-sense suggestions Judge Payton dispensed from the bench to Weaver and McKenna. But they didn’t have to follow the good judge’s advice after all. Fear, it seems, administered its own swift kick in the rear.
The courtroom experience “kind of triggered something,” McKenna says; she and her mom started getting up earlier, and as of the end of the last school year, McKenna had no more tardies.
Leanna, too, changed her behavior after her day in court. “She got really scared from the process,” Tariq explains, “and then she just started waking up on time.”
So the question is not whether the process is effective at the elementary level, but whether the courtroom is necessary, and if so, why. Why is fear of the courtroom the necessary motivator for a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old to get ready in the morning?

“I don’t see government’s role as a role to take care of you,” Judge Payton says. “That’s not our job.” But the law he holds dear does encourage the court to assign parenting classes or other programs “designed to assist … in identifying problems that contribute to the students’ unexcused absences and in developing strategies for resolving those problems.”

In other words, it is not just within the court’s jurisdiction, but it is the court’s duty – and by extension, the taxpayers’ duty – to help families organize their lives enough to get to school on time. Judge Payton admits that in this role, he is many families’ “last resort” when it comes to putting their lives in order. He court-orders parenting classes and gives advice about speeding up the morning routine. And he appears to be doing a good job; just ask the older kids who proudly bring him their high-school diplomas.

Tariq concurs that the courtroom is the right place to handle truancy at the middle and high-school levels and even acknowledges that the parenting class Judge Payton assigned her was “wonderful.” But she was not impressed with the four-hour wait outside the courtroom, where she – and more important, her daughter – saw other kids getting arrested. “I don’t think it’s a good place for a little kid to be,” she says. “I just feel like jails and courtrooms and stuff should be away from kids until they start understanding better.”

Even so, Tariq has nothing bad to say about Judge Payton. “It’s better with him than somebody else, but I just feel like it shouldn’t even be that way.”

Published September 2013