By Stephanie Simon
(Reuters) - Several students from northeast Texas said they plan to file a federal complaint on Wednesday accusing their school districts of cruel and unusual punishment by prosecuting them in criminal court for missing school or being late for class.
The civil rights complaint, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, is directed at school districts in Dallas and three other communities.
The districts funnel truancy cases to a special court system that prosecuted more than 36,000 cases and collected $2.9 million in fines last year from students convicted of multiple unexcused absences or tardy arrivals, according to the complaint.
Students as young as 12 can be arrested and handcuffed at school. Once they turn 17, they can be jailed for failing to pay past fines, which can run into thousands of dollars, according to the complaint, which was drafted by the National Center for Youth Law and advocacy groups Texas Appleseed and Disability Rights Texas.
"I'm getting treated like a criminal," Ashley Brown, 16, one of the complainants, told Reuters late on Monday. She said she had been erroneously sent to truancy court for four excused absences after her grandmother's death.
Tim Clark, a spokesman for the Richardson Independent School District, which was named in the complaint, said the district follows state law but it plans to look closely at the accusations and cooperate with the federal Office of Civil Rights.
Jon Dahlander, a spokesman for the Dallas Independent School District, echoed those remarks and added that the district would "continue to ensure that all students are treated equitably."
Officials at another district that serves the city of Garland said they planned to file fewer truancy cases next year, focusing only on students who miss school at least 10 times in six months. They currently file some cases when a student is late or absent three times in a four-week period. They told Reuters on a conference call that they use the court as a last resort but do find it helpful.
"Sometimes kids respond to a judge, respond to sanctions, respond to an order to attend school in a way they hadn't responded to principals and teachers," said Marlene Gardner, an attendance administrator for Garland.
The fourth district named in the complaint, which serves the city of Mesquite, declined to comment.
Texas and Wyoming are the only two states in the United States that prosecute truancy as a crime in adult court, according to Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed.
In its last fiscal year, which ran from August 2011 through September 2012, Texas pursued 113,000 truancy cases, twice as many as were brought in all other 49 states combined, Fowler said.
The Dallas County court is the most active in Texas. Students do not have the right to a public defense attorney and convictions become part of their permanent record, potentially complicating efforts to get a job or be admitted into college, Fowler said.
In the 59-page complaint, the student advocates are asking the U.S. Department of Justice to order the districts to use court prosecutions less frequently and to translate truancy policies into Spanish.
Some jurisdictions in the United States are rethinking truancy policies. Georgia recently passed a bill requiring schools to offer students with chronic attendance problems services such as tutoring or help in getting health care. Last year, Los Angeles relaxed its truancy law to handle more cases out of court or with minimal fines.
"There's a slow dawning that we've got to do something a little different," said Jessica Pennington, executive director of the Truancy Intervention Project.
(Reporting by Stephanie Simon; Editing by Scott Malone, Toni Reinhold)