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Sham Court Jails Hard-Working Truant

March 9, 2013 permalink

Diane Tran is a teenager from a broken family forced to work two jobs to support herself while attending high school. Last May her absences from school were enough to get a truancy judge to sentence her to a fine and jail time.

An enclosed opinion piece by Wendy McElroy shows how a per-person funding formula induces educators to persecute parents and children with truancy laws, including the creation of sham courts without rules or records.



Texas honor student jailed for truancy likely spent night with 'hard-core' criminals

A 17-year-old Houston honor student jailed 24 hours for missing too much school likely spent the night surrounded by "every type of criminal that exists," one Houston defense attorney said.

Diane Tran, an 11th-grade honor student at Willis High School near Houston, was sent to jail for 24 hours last Wednesday by Judge Lanny Moriarty and ordered to pay a $100 fine for excessive truancy.

It’s unclear how many days Tran missed, but state law reportedly permits only 10 absences in a six-month period.

Tran, who works full-time at a dry-cleaning business and part-time for a wedding planner, has been supporting her brother and sister since her parents separated and her mother moved away.

Houston defense attorney Ned Barnett on Tuesday called the ruling "outrageous" and said "a little discretion should have been used" in the teenager's case.

"It doesn’t take much discretion to have sympathy for Miss Tran," Barnett said. "To lock her up is just outrageous."

Barnett, who is not defending Tran, said the girl likely spent her 24-hour jail sentence at Montgomery County Jail surrounded by suspected murderers, drug addicts and prostitutes.

"It's hard-core," he said of the jail, noting that past clients whom he has defended described it as "the worst experience of their life."

Tran, who is considered an adult under Texas state law, was issued a summons last Wednesday for truancy after she missed classes. She was arrested in open court and ordered to spend 24 hours at the jail for truancy, which is considered a misdemeanor. The ruling came after the teenager was issued a warning by a judge last month about her absences.

Judge Moriarty told KHOU 11 News that he intended to make an example of Tran by placing her in jail.

"If you let one run loose, what are you going to do with the rest of them? Let them go, too?" Moriarty told the station.

Mary Elliot, owner of Vineyards of Waverly Manor, where Tran works, told that Tran is a "straight-A student" and "exceptionally good kid" who takes college-level courses and has a strong work ethic. Elliot said the teenager should never have been arrested and forced to spend the night in jail.

"Her family has taught her a good work ethic," Elliot said. "Her brother was No. 8 in his class. She wants to do better than that."

"We need to change what they do to these kids in the school," she said. "They need to look at their records instead of just judge them as bad kids."

E. Tay Bond, a well-known Houston defense attorney, said the judge likely had no discretion to avert a jail sentence.

"There's no legal exception that I’m aware of that if you're an honors student, you’re allowed to exceed a maximum number of unexcused days under the Texas Compulsory Education Laws," Bond told "Twenty-four hours would be about the minimum period of confinement to make a point.

"I think the public policy of making kids attend school is necessary and 24 hours in jail would be pretty minimal and should get the point across," he said.

Since the girl's story went viral, hundreds of people have rallied to raise money for the teen. One group, called the Louisiana Children's Education Alliance, set up a website named that reported it had raised nearly $40,000 for the girl.

Houston Councilman Al Hoang said what he worries about most is Tran's record.

"I’m going to ask the judge to expunge the record," Hoang told "The truancy laws should be applied case by case and in this case, it should not be applied. I believe Judge Moriarty should have used his discretionary power to excuse her from this matter."

Source: KHOU Houston

Milking the Truancy Cow for Cash

Diane Tran is the 17-year-old honor student who was jailed for truancy in Texas. When a tearful Tran gave an interview for a local television station, the story went viral. Her parents had recently divorced, leaving Tran to support herself by working two jobs in addition to attending school. Fury was unleashed upon truancy court Justice Lanny Moriarty who “made an example” of Tran by fining her $100 and imprisoning her for 24 hours. Deluged with criticism and media blare, Moriarty quickly vacated the conviction.

People who were shocked by Tran's treatment have not been paying attention. Truancy has been criminalized for over a decade now and the situation will worsen over the next few years.

A standard legal definition of truancy is provided by A Quick Guide to Truancy Prosecution issued by Los Angeles County Education Coordinating Council. The Guide states “Any pupil subject to compulsory full-time education who is absent from school without valid excuse three full-time days in one school year or tardy or absent for more than any 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof, is a truant.” After going through a warning process, chronic truants are often referred to a truancy court. In essence, this is a specialized family court in which parents and/or their truant children must explain themselves to a judge. Although such courts are relatively new, they have spread quickly.

As in other family courts, the truancy judge exercises a great deal of discretion. One judge in Pennsylvania bragged of being harsh with parents and children. Of parents who did not attend court-ordered guidance classes, he declared, "bam! I slam them in jail."

Why Criminalize Truancy Now?

Officials who pursue truants argue that it is “for the children's good.” They point to the alleged benefits of a public school education but another justification emerged. Truancy is called a “gateway crime” that leads to more serious ones and, so, it puts children on the fast track from public school to prison.

The real motive for the war on truancy is money, however. Public schools receive funding for every child who attends at least 60% of the school day; for example, the Berkeley, California school district reportedly receives $35 a day in state funding. Federal programs and other sources of funding also use attendance rates to delegate money to districts. The U.S. Department of Education offers a general sense of where the funding comes from, “In the 2004-05 school year, 83 cents out of every dollar spent on education is estimated to come from the state and local levels (45.6 percent from state funds and 37.1 percent from local governments). The federal government's share is 8.3 percent.” \

It is difficult to find reliable data on how much schools spend to educate a child for one school year (approx. 180 days). In a March 10, 2010 Cato policy report entitled “They Spend WHAT? The Real Cost of Public Schools,” Adam Schaeffer wrote,

Although public schools are usually the biggest item in state and local budgets, spending figures provided by public school officials and reported in the media often leave out major costs of education and thus understate what is actually spent.

To document the phenomenon, this paper reviews district budgets and state records for the nation’s five largest metro areas and the District of Columbia. It reveals that, on average, per-pupil spending in these areas is 44 percent higher than officially reported.

Real spending per pupil ranges from a low of nearly $12,000 in the Phoenix area schools to a high of nearly $27,000 in the New York metro area.

The financial stakes are high, with the flow of money into school coffers hinging upon student attendance. This establishes precisely the wrong incentive. When a government agency is paid for the number of people it processes, that agency has a strong incentive to force as many people as possible to use its 'service'. Attendance becomes mandatory, and the 'right' to an education becomes a legal requirement to obtain one.

Now public schools are taking the next step to ensure that absenteeism does not deny them tax-dollars. If the absence is chronic, then officials are going after the parents with the threat of fines and jail time. The threat is not an empty one.

San Francisco leads the Way

In a San Francisco Examiner (09/24/08) article entitled “Why prosecute parents of chronically truant students?,” then-district attorney of San Francisco Kamala Harris explained, “I chose to file criminal charges against six parents whose children, as young as 6 years old, had missed as many as 80 days out of a 180-day school year. Those parents are now reporting to a model Truancy Court we created...” One of the powers of the Court is to mandate family services and training programs. In the case of a chronic truant, the student may become a ward of the court.

Harris' crusade began with a letter. Near the start of the 2007-08 school year, all parents or guardians of “a San Francisco Unified School District student” received notification that she was prepared to prosecute those who “broke the law by keeping their children out of school.” In an article in the Bay Citizen, Harris proclaimed her policy as a success. Pointing to attendance figures that were up by 4,500 days, she said that the increase caused a “savings of $350,000.” That is, the schools received $350,000 of additional funding from the state and federal governments. Other statistics back up the claim. For example, in the 2007-08 school year, there were reportedly 5,436 students with 10 or more unexcused absences. In 2009-10, there were 3,605.

Eager to “save” more, Harris then pushed a 2010 Chronic Truancy Reduction bill. As a result of its passage, the parents of truants can now be punished with up to a year in jail or a $2,000 fine or both.

Other cash-strapped school districts are taking notes. An article in the May 29, 2012 San Francisco Chronicle explained, “A year ago, Berkeley school Superintendent Bill Huyett...took about $250,000 out of the district's bank account and placed a bet.” He hired staff 'to focus entirely on student attendance'.” The result? Within nine months, the district reaped “more than $1 million in state and other funding to pay for the 150 additional students on average who now show up for school each day.” The district reversed its plans to send out 148 pink slips to teachers.

Backlash against truancy policies

In March 2010, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the officials of six Rhode Island schools and several family court judges. Filed on behalf of nine parents and their children, Boyer v. Jeremiah accused school officials of using truancy charges as punishment and it challenged the Constitutionality of the state's truancy court. The ACLU stated “the state’s truancy court system is devoid of due process protections in violation of state and federal law, that the truancy courts are frequently punitive in nature, and that truancy court magistrates threaten vulnerable children and their parents with baseless fines and imprisonment, remove children from the custody of their parents without legal justification and fail to keep adequate records of court hearings.” The lack of records is particularly damaging as there are no transcripts upon which to base an appeal. (Boyer v. Jeremiah is ongoing.)

The attempt of school officials to reach ever more deeply into non-violent families is also ongoing. Instead of treating truancy with a suspension or detention, as it has been in the past, schools are treating truants as 'pre-criminals' who must be reined in. Instead of going to the root causes of truancy – such as the authoritarian incompetence and unpleasantness of schools – officials are blaming parents.

Dragging children to attend classes they hate will never produce education. Tossing children to the juvenile court system in order to keep them out of prison in later life achieves the opposite. Jailing parents who may lose their jobs as a consequence shows utter contempt for the well-being of families and children. The war on truancy does not help children. If helping children were the goal, then they would not be stripped of rights, taken from their families and have to watch parents go to jail. These practices make no sense until you factor in the funding received by public schools for every kidnapped child.

The truancy flap is about cold cash. It is also about school authority, which has become one of the greatest dangers to children in our society.

Source: Wendy McElroy