What are Houston schools facing when it comes to chronically truant students?

HOUSTON – As investigators combed through the life of the Robb Elementary school shooter, they discovered he was absent from school for hundreds of days before being “involuntarily withdrawn” from the district.

Despite the large number of unexcused absences, state lawmakers noted it is unclear whether any attempts were made by the school district to find out what was happening in the teen’s life.

Truancy can be a daunting problem for school districts given the numbers. According to data from the Texas Education Agency, there were a combined 132,125 cases of truancy last school year for Houston, Katy, Cy-Fair, Galveston, Conroe, Fort Bend and Spring school districts.

State law defines truancy as a student who has 10 or more unexcused absences during a six-month period. However, the state also mandates schools notify parents and implement truancy prevention measures when a student has three or more unexcused absences during a four-week period.

Every district KPRC 2 Investigates spoke with reported having staff dedicated to tracking attendance and chronically truant students. However, how each district handles truancy can vary from referring the student to a truancy court to suspension, or even expulsion.

The state legislature decriminalized truancy in 2015, noting many students miss class because of hardships in their home life. Truancy courts can meter out civil remedies to students and parents, such as ordering tutoring programs, GED classes, community service or a range of other programs. If a parent or student is found in contempt of court orders they can be fined.

Recently, HISD partnered with the non-profit organization 8-Million Stories to help truant students get back on track.

“Oh, my God! I love going to school here,” said Taiylar Hollins.

Hollins’ enthusiasm for learning is new in her life. She is one of 65 students attending classes under the HISD REAL program, which stands for Reimaging my Education And Life.

“It just felt like I lost control of my education. Like, I didn’t have control over it. I just lost it,” said Hollins.

“You had to work? asked KPRC 2 Investigator Robert Arnold.

“I had to,” said Hollins. “If I didn’t work, bills weren’t going to get paid.”

The burden of having to help her family make ends meet caused Hollins to miss so much school she was three years behind.

“It wasn’t like because I didn’t want to show up, it was like I was working every day,” said Hollins. “One day they was like they was going to call truancy on my mama and I was like, ‘I can’t let that happen.’”

Hollins said that was when she was given a chance to enroll in HISD REAL.

“We create an opportunity for them to accelerate their learning so that they can earn those credits that put them on a faster track to completing high school,” said Marvin Pierre, co-founder and executive director of 8-Million Stories.

“What’s the danger of not trying to reach out to a chronically truant student?” asked Arnold.

“They begin to become a challenge in our communities, whether it’s committing crimes or increasing our numbers in the criminal justice system,” said Pierre.

The program offers students a chance to earn credits needed to graduate high school or earn their GED.

“We really try to remove as many barriers as possible that keep kids from disengaging in school,” said Pierre.

This includes providing students with hot meals, clothes, job training and even financial support when possible. This is the first year 8-Million Stories has been in a brick-and-mortar school. Students attend class in a wing of Jones Futures Academy.

“When I first got here they didn’t see me as my problem, they saw me as Taiylar, like, they just saw me,” said Hollins.

The massacre in Uvalde shows not every district has access to solutions likes 8-Million stories. A state House Investigative committee found the shooter “had declining attendance, with more than one hundred absences annually beginning in 2018,” and “It is unclear whether any school resource officers ever visited the home of the attacker.”

“In many districts, the truancy program is just shot to pieces because there isn’t a program anymore; that’s got to be reversed,” said State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, (R) Dist. 7. “Expect that to be brought back as legislation.”

State lawmakers agree children are slipping through the cracks in our current truancy system. While Bettencourt said lawmakers will revisit truancy laws next session, State Rep. Gene Wu said he will advocate for more resources for programs like 8-Million Stories and HISD REAL.

“Our current system of dealing with kids pushes them away, drive them away as far and as fast as possible,” said Wu, (D) Dist. 134. " We have to address it, we can’t just push them away and try to ignore them until something snaps.”

For Hollins, programs like HISD REAL and 8-Million Stories are life-changing.

“I want to go to college now. I didn’t want to go to college at first because I was struggling in high school,” said Hollins. “Not only am I learning, but I’m actually having fun doing it.”

You can read more about how to volunteer or partner with 8-Million Stories by going to the group’s website, https://www.eightmillionstories.org/

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”