Through Swathi Narayanan
On a recent Wednesday night, Jennifer James sat in Precinct 1, the Justice of the Peace’s office on Heflin Lane in East Austin, looking anxious as she waited for her son, Hector Prado.
Hector’s habit of skipping school had prompted the administrators at Webb Middle School to lay a truancy charge against the eighth-grader, and now he appeared to be AWOL again.
That evening, Hector and his mother were scheduled to attend the effective pregnant parenting workshop. Its goal is to help truant youth stay in school and their parents to avoid potential criminal penalties under Texas law.
When James told workshop organizer Grady Paris that Hector wasn’t picking up his phone, Paris said, âCall him from my phone. But before the call could go through, Hector came in and apologized to his mother for being late.
“He did well to apologize to you as soon as he came,” Paris said, patting Hector on the back. Prado nodded to understand. âI have to focus on what I have to do,â he said.
According to the Texas Judicial Council, more than 65,000 cases of truancy were filed in Texas in 2014. But efforts are being made to curb truancy and bring stray students back to school – and possibly build new ones. stronger families in the process. One development came in 2015, when the Texas legislature decriminalized truancy for school-aged youth. Students with 10 or more unexcused absences can still be ordered to appear in civil court, where they face a combination of mandatory counseling, community service, and court costs of up to $ 100. Parents, however, can face criminal charges of contributing to truancy if the county can prove that their child’s truancy was the result of parental neglect. Decisions can result in a fine of up to $ 587. If the fine is not paid, a citation for contempt of court can result in a maximum of three days in jail.
“The main intervention before the law changed was a fine and a criminal conviction,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit organization that works with low-income families. “What changed the last session was not just an abandonment of the use of sanctions and convictions by the criminal courts … [but also making] the process is more like what we would see in a juvenile court – which is a civil process. TThe system for parents remains relatively unchanged.
Travis County schools file truancy cases with justices of the peace courts. When students are sent to court, they may be charged with a civil offense known as âtruancy conductâ. In 2014, the five judicial districts in Travis County handled a total of 2,004 such cases, with 19.7% of them, or 395, going through District 1, according to the Texas Office of Court Administration. To combat his cases of truancy (there were 468 in 2011-2012 and 515 in 2012-2013), Grady Paris, training specialist at the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center at Prairie View A&M University, s’ is teamed up with Yvonne Williams, a college friend who serves as Justice of the Peace in Precinct 1, to create the Parent Workshop.
The aim of the workshop is to make sure parents and children communicate with each other more effectively, said Paris, 63. Too often, she said, âEven if they [parents] speak, they speak to the child and not to the child.
When Williams, 61, took office in 2011, she said she quickly saw the challenge in Precinct 1’s “huge truancy record”. Its jurisdiction includes 49 public and charter schools in a sprawling area that includes East Austin, Pflugerville, and Del Valle. It has consistently ranked among the county’s truancy hot spots.
Williams contacted Paris and, during a conversation, the idea of ââcreating a communication workshop emerged. Today, the program offers two-hour sessions every Wednesday for four weeks. On Thursday morning there is a separate session for parents against whom complaints have been filed.
The Effective Parenting and Child Engagement program works as a form of intervention after a school files a complaint against a child. Administrators can also use it as a preventive measure and agree not to file an absenteeism file with the county if participants complete the workshop.
Its school-aged participants can benefit from the program by being exempt from legal and administrative costs. Parents’ fines can be reduced to $ 100 or less, depending on economic need.
Paris said it takes her two hours to drive from her home in Prairie View to reach Police Station 1, but she gladly makes the weekly commute for the chance to help reduce absenteeism.
“I’ll come,” she said, “rain or sleet.”
During the sessions, Grady emphasizes to participants the importance of doing things as a family, then asks them the following week to tell him about their family interactions. Participants also play a role in helping them deal with real-life situations.
The parenting workshop is part of the overall efforts of CitÃ© 1.
âJustice William’s court is the one we have frequently cited as a model when we advocated for legislative reforms,â said Fowler of Texas Appleseed. “She’s really interested in trying to make sureâ¦ that she fixes the issues so that the kids don’t come back to court.”
According to Eleanor Thompson, Ward 1 Senior Planner, the Parent Workshop costs $ 54,000 per school year. Much of the funding comes from the Texas Juvenile Crime Prevention Center of Prairie View A&M, with which the constituency has a formal agreement.
Since its launch in 2011, more than 800 families have participated in the workshop, although the program has so far generated little data to suggest how effective it is in keeping children in school.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. When the kids show up to court, Thompson said, âWe tell them we’re not here to punish you. We will help you, if you allow us.