The 11th-grader in the courtroom wore braces, loved Harry Potter movies, and posted Katy Perry lyrics on Facebook. She also had a bad habit of cutting school, and now, a judge informed her, she owed $2,700 in truancy-related fines. But Serena Vela, who lived in a trailer with her unemployed mother, couldn’t afford to pay.
Serena was offered "jail credit" at a rate of $300 per day. She was patted down, touched "everywhere," and dispatched to adult lockup, where she would stay for nine days, missing a week and a half of classes. The first school day after she was released, administrators kicked her out.
She had gone to jail because of a law intended to keep kids on the path to graduation. Instead, her high school career was over.
Serena is one of more than 1,000 Texas teenagers who have been ordered to jail in the last three years on charges stemming from missing school, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. The students get locked up with adults, sometimes inmates charged with assault, robbery and other violent crimes.
The overwhelming majority of students charged are poor, and most are black or Hispanic. Students are not sentenced to jail for missing school outright but rather for failing to follow court orders associated with their truancy charges. Many students have found themselves in a teen version of debtors’ prison, locked up because their families did not or could not pay steep fines stemming from their original truancy charge. Moreover, there is evidence that some Texas judges are flouting a law intended to prevent young people from being jailed because their families can’t afford the fines.
Though Texas’ truancy system was intended to keep kids in school and headed toward graduation, it often has the opposite effect, driving many teenagers out of school. Days behind bars can count as unexcused absences if students don’t clear them with school officials by providing documentation from the jail. And even when they are not penalized for time in jail, it often means more missed school, rendering already-struggling students that much further behind.
While in jail, students told BuzzFeed News, they witnessed adult inmates beating each other and soliciting sex. Still, some young people said their jail stint startled them into recognizing the value of school — a point echoed by proponents of the system. “It’s important that children learn that there are consequences to their actions,” Judge David Cobos of Midland County, in western Texas, told state legislators at a recent hearing. Without the hammer of a court order, he and others said, officials could not get students to attend needed counseling, tutoring, and other services.
But many other students said that jail scarred them by making them feel like failures or, in some cases, by exacerbating preexisting mental illnesses. One student was housed in solitary confinement for most of his 11-day sentence in 2013, leaving only to spend 48 hours under suicide watch in the infirmary, according to jail officials. He said he is now on anxiety medications to mitigate panic attacks that overwhelm him when he sees a police car. Another, Cade Soergel of Plano, said that he has bipolar disorder, and that his three-day stint in jail last year “drove me insane.” He said he contemplated suicide.
Putting truant students in adult lockup “is so beyond the pale," said Nate Balis, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Casey Foundation. He said national research from numerous scholars has concluded that the most common reasons students are chronically truant include financial barriers, health issues, and instability at home. It’s rarely a matter of kids “playing hooky” for fun.
Texas is unique in locking up large numbers of truant students in adult jail. In Texas, "failure to attend school" is a class C misdemeanor, and such charges are heard in "justice of the peace" and municipal courts, which otherwise handle minor cases such as traffic tickets and eviction. The judges do not have to have a law degree.
No one has determined how frequently teenagers have been jailed, according to an advocacy group and a state legislator — until now. In 2014 alone, at least 300 Texas teenagers spent a day or more in adult lockup thanks to truancy charges, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of jail logs in nine of the 10 most populous counties in the state. BuzzFeed News also examined data going back to 2012 from three counties — Harris, home to Houston; Collin, outside Dallas; and Fort Bend, also near Houston — and found more than 1,000 students ordered to jail in the past three years.
Those numbers almost certainly vastly undercount the real totals because they do not include data from most of the more than 200 counties in Texas. They also omit hundreds of jail terms handed out for the general charge of violating a court order as a child, when in many of those cases the underlying offense was likely truancy.
The travails poor adults face when they can’t pay court fines — including steep late payment fees, suspended driver’s licenses, and jail time — have ignited a national debate. But Texas extends that practice to teenagers, locking up large numbers of high school students because they owe the court as little as a few hundred dollars.
In Harris County 142 of the 172 students jailed on truancy-related charges last year were put there for failing to pay their fines. None of the other eight counties examined by BuzzFeed News specified how many teenagers were locked up for unpaid fines as opposed to other infractions stemming from truancy, such as missing a court date.
Sometimes students stayed behind bars for a day or a weekend. But in at least 11 cases last year, young people spent a week or more behind bars.
Kevin Reyes of Houston recalled how he was pulled out of his class at Willowridge High School in April 2012, the day after his 19th birthday, and handcuffed at school. Once in court, he was told he could pay a hefty fine — he remembers about $1,000 — or he could pay it off by sitting in jail. For the next nine days, Kevin was confined to a large holding area with, he recalls, about 20 other inmates. Texas law allows schools to boot out any 18-year-old with five unexcused absences in a semester, and when Reyes got out of jail, he said, a truancy officer told him that being out of class for the past week had put him too far behind. He was not allowed to finish the school year, he said, and has not been back since. He now works in construction.
A Fort Bend Independent School District spokesperson said that due to staffing changes since Reyes was released, she was “unable to confirm what may have been communicated to the student.”
There is no right to counsel in the courts that handle truancy. Of the more than 20 families BuzzFeed News spoke with in which a teenager served jail time for truancy-related charges, not one had a lawyer.
This spring, amid growing awareness of students emerging from the truancy system with criminal records and hundreds of dollars in fines, Texas lawmakers are considering a host of bills that would decriminalize cutting school.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice recently announced an investigation into whether students in Dallas County truancy courts have had their due process rights violated. Separately, State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston) recently called on the federal justice department to investigate racial disparities in truancy filings.
Even some truancy judges said they have begun to question the wisdom of locking up students.
“If you’re sending someone to jail and they’re missing school, then that’s counter-productive,” said Don Coffey, a Harris County judge. “It’s totally against the whole spirit of what I think the law should be.”
Serena’s habit of playing hooky began in the fall of her freshman year, around the time she turned 16, and continued through the following school year.
In the beginning, she used the age-old tactic of feigning sickness. Her mother, Trisha Vela, saw through that, so finally Serena would just declare that she didn’t want to go. After some pushback Trisha, who hadn’t graduated high school herself, would give in, telling Serena that if she wasn’t going to school she had better at least vacuum and do some dishes.
The previous couple years had been tough on Serena. Her family was broke, and they had recently moved from a much bigger home to a trailer in Fresno, south of Houston. Her mom was struggling to get out of a tumultuous relationship. Then, after her freshman year, Serena’s best friend, Jessica, left Hightower High School to be homeschooled. Serena likes to post jokes on Facebook and is quick to use a smiley face in text messages, but she is generally shy and withdrawn. Without Jessica, things “just felt lonely,” she said.
When Serena was feeling sad or unmotivated, she’d stay home in the family’s rundown trailer watching television. The more school Serena missed, the more lost she felt when she did go, especially in math and chemistry. She was so far behind in math, it seemed like she had no hope of getting even a D. This was a problem she didn’t have to think about if she stayed home.
Her worst month for attendance during her freshman and sophomore years, according to her court records obtained by BuzzFeed News, was November 2012, when she missed six days of 10th grade; there were several months where court records don’t show any unexcused absences.
In all, her court file shows 37 unexcused absences over the course of two school years. For those absences, Fort Bend Independent School District filed five different criminal truancy complaints against Serena. Under Texas law, if a student has 10 unexcused absences in a six-month span, schools are legally required to file truancy charges.
Each of Serena’s criminal charges carried a potential fine and a demand to show up at the county’s truancy court. But Serena missed her court dates, too. Truancy court was in Sugar Land, a 20-minute drive from Serena’s house. Her mother didn’t have a car, which meant Serena either had to ask her mother to borrow a car and drive her, take an expensive taxi, or make a long walk to a web of suburban buses for a trip that would take at least 90 minutes. It was easier, Serena said, for her to pretend the court dates just didn’t exist.
Those skipped court dates created new charges: failure to appear for court. With each new charge, the fines mounted.
In the fall of 2012, a month after she turned 17 and became a legal adult under Texas criminal law, Serena received her first arrest warrant, on one charge of missing school and another of missing court.
She and her mother drove to the constable’s office, where Serena was fingerprinted and put in handcuffs. After a night in jail she was brought in front of a judge, who informed her that she owed $680. Serena’s mother could not afford the fine, so Serena sat in jail for two more days.
She spent most of her time in her cell, which she shared with two other women. She mostly slept, and did her best to stave off boredom. “When you’re in high school,” she said of her stint, “it’s a long time.”
Serena managed to get her paperwork in order so the two school days she missed while in jail didn’t count against her, but she came out feeling more behind and deeply unmotivated.
She was still only a sophomore. The idea that graduation was slipping away from her was far from her mind. “I thought I had time,” she said.
What, if anything, Hightower High was doing to help Serena turn things around is unclear. Serena said the school would mail her warning letters about her missed days, but aside from one truancy prevention class she found full of legal jargon, she said school officials made no attempt to keep her in class.
Charles Dupre, the new superintendent of Fort Bend Independent School District, said officials now make a greater effort to keep students in class and send fewer to court. It’s impossible to know whether Serena would have fared better with more robust stay-in-school programs, but in any event she was soon back to her old habits.
She lived in dread of seeing more constable cars in her driveway, but her fear wasn’t enough to keep her in class every day.
When lawmakers originally moved truancy out of juvenile court and into the adult system in the early '90s, legislative records suggest the prospect of adult jail time was not on their minds. At the time, juvenile court dockets were so clogged that in some counties truancy cases were languishing for up to 18 months. Legislators decided that justices of the peace could handle the high volume more effectively.
How students fare in truancy court varies widely county to county and judge to judge. Dallas County Judge Boyd Richie declared at a recent legislative hearing that he would never jail a student for failing to pay a fine. “I work across the hall from another judge who trained me to begin with, and he doesn’t do it either,” Richie said. “And if he thought I was, he’d take me outside and take me out to the woodshed, and I’d have a few bruises 'fore I came back.”
Other judges said they reserve jail as a last resort for students who simply refuse to go to class. “A little stay in the jail for one night is not a death sentence,” former Montgomery County Judge Lanny Moriarty told a TV news station after he jailed an honors student who had been working multiple jobs.
Among the most prolific jailers is Judge John Payton. A self-styled “motivational speaker” and “executive trainer” who dabbles in talk radio, he was first elected judge at 18. His mother was his campaign manager in that race, which won him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the youngest judge ever. He never earned his bachelor’s degree or passed the bar.
He oversees roughly 80 percent of the school attendance cases in Collin County, a prosperous area north of Dallas.
Payton began taking on truancy cases in the mid-’90s. He claims that 98 percent of the students he sees end up with a high school degree, and that he has now served more than 35,000 families in his 20-plus years on the bench. “I get letter after letter, card after card, graduation card after graduation card, saying ‘Hey if you hadn’t done this for us we wouldn’t be here,’” he told BuzzFeed News recently.
Every hearing he starts by asking a version of the same question: “Why aren’t you going to school?” A sign in front of his bench warns how not to respond: “‘I don’t know’ is not an answer!” Once a student in his court pleads guilty — they almost always do — he hands over a detailed court order and makes a number of demands, the first of which is to take a drug test that very day. He also requires further court hearings, detailed attendance logs, and hours of community service. In some cases, students must hand over passwords to all of their social media accounts.
Payton estimates he orders adult jail time for 45 to 50 students each year, most for a three-day stay. Jail records show 66 teenagers jailed per his court order in 2014.
Sure, some of those students miss a few classes for jail, Payton said, but many of them finally get the message that staying in school is crucial. A small number continue to disobey, leading to more trips to lockup, and occasionally longer stints.
Often, he said, he sends kids to jail when he suspects drug abuse. Payton cites the case of one 17-year-old girl who he said was severely addicted — “I mean she was back on meth again, mixing it with cocaine,” Payton said. He jailed her for 15 days, keeping her there so that she wouldn’t do drugs while her mother arranged for her to go to rehab. The girl’s mother, who spoke on condition that she and her daughter not be named, said it was a godsend. “If it wasn’t for him, my daughter might be dead right now,” she told BuzzFeed News.
Payton dismissed the idea that the kids he sends to jail could be harmed by their time in lockup. He said that the Collin County jail keeps the 17-year-olds away from felons, although jail officials said this is not necessarily the case. And he said that he has no difficulty identifying which students might have emotional or psychological problems that could make jail a dangerous option. “You can see on their face what’s going on with them,” he said. He doesn’t lock up the ones that do have those problems, he said. “Not a good idea. Way bad.”
Yet in 2013, Payton jailed a student for 11 days whose Facebook page included posts about depression, death, and pain in the weeks prior. Payton said he offered several mental health interventions to the student before jailing him. BuzzFeed News is not quoting the posts to protect the teen, who served his time in solitary confinement and on suicide watch, according to jail officials.
Although the address listed on the student’s booking sheet is a rundown motel, the 17-year-old was locked up for failing to pay a $585 fine, according to jail records. Payton first told BuzzFeed News that he never fines students, even in the worst cases. “Children, in their very nature, are indigent,” he said. When asked later about this student, he said that he only issued fines in the rarest of cases, and that this particular incarceration came after multiple other interventions to help the teenager stay in school failed over a three-year period.
Payton said it’s only natural that some children and parents will be upset by his tactics. “I’m not here to make everybody happy,” he said. “My job is to get them through school.”
But however well intentioned Texas’ truancy law, critics said numerous cases illustrate that the system leads to abuses and can harm children and families, even when students avoid jail time.
For low-income families, fines are often a real hardship. Frank Ward, who lives in the Houston suburb of Baytown, said he shelled out $950 — “a pretty good chunk out of my Social Security check” — to get his 17-year-old grandson sprung after one night behind bars.
“I would have done anything to get him out of jail,” Ward said. “Poor kids — they get taken advantage of,” he said.
In another case in Collin County, a 17-year-old girl who had already done one stint in jail was ordered to lockup again, this time for unpaid fines. She begged her mother to use money set aside for her high school graduation gift to pay the court, she and her mother said, because she couldn’t tolerate the idea of spending more time behind bars.
In 2010, the ACLU of Texas filed a federal lawsuit against Hidalgo County, which sits in south Texas along the Mexican border and is one of the poorest places in the United States.
The ACLU complaint, which was settled in 2012, charged that over a 14-month period, about 30 teens spent more than a week in jail for unpaid fines for truancy and other school tickets. One of the plaintiffs, Elizabeth Diaz, sometimes missed school because she had bipolar disorder, ADHD, arthritis, fibromyalgia, and osteoporosis. At 17, she was told she owed $1,600 in fines on three truancy tickets. At the time Diaz and her mother, Adelita, were making a combined $16,100 a year in disability benefits.
Once Diaz’s fate was sealed, she asked Adelita to leave the court. “Mom,” she said, “I don’t want you to see me in handcuffs.”
Diaz spent 18 days in jail, sharing a cell with women charged with murder, drug distribution, and human trafficking, according to the complaint. Diaz alleged that she suffered abuse of a “sexual nature” while inside.
Hidalgo officials disputed Diaz’s claims of abuse, and the extent to which jail set her back in school. But they acknowledged that they did not make an attempt to find out whether defendants in these types of cases were too poor to pay fines, despite Texas law requiring them to do so. They testified that the defendants were supposed to raise the issue themselves.
In 2012, a federal judge ruled that county officials had violated the constitutional rights of Diaz and another teenager, adding federal protections to Texas' own law intended to prevent the indigent from being locked up because they can't afford a fine. But judges have continued to send poor children to jail for not paying their fines.
Trapped in the trailer during the long, empty summer months between her sophomore and junior year in high school, hiding from the merciless Texas heat, Serena came to the realization that if she didn’t apply herself in school her options looked bleak.
She saw what being a high school dropout had done to her older sister, who had once talked of becoming a lawyer. And then there was her mother, whose life had been limited by not finishing high school.
The weekend before school started in the fall of 2013, she posted a plea for the coming year on Facebook: “Ugh i hope i go somewhere.”
After the first two days back in school, in August, she posted another status: "imma need a really smart friend that has alotta patients to help me in math." She was in 11th grade but was taking some 10th-grade classes to catch up. She was making progress in math, earning grades in the 60s, compared to the 20s and 30s of years prior, she said. She still missed some classes, but she plugged along.
Serena hoped that her improved attitude would keep more warrants for classes she had missed the year before from her doorstep, at least in some karmic way, but the constable car in her driveway and officer’s knock on her door in October proved it wasn’t to be.
She was booked into jail again, and after a restless night she was once again brought in front of a judge to find out how long she’d be behind bars — and how many days of school she would miss. It came down to how much she owed in fines. For four truancy charges and four charges of failure to appear, she owed $2,729. Her mom was unemployed at the time.
Despite Texas law and the federal ruling in the ACLU suit the year before, Serena’s court file, reviewed by BuzzFeed News, does not show any attempt to find out whether she could afford her fines.
At no time during the entire process did Serena have a lawyer. Though she had no right to counsel, she could have hired one, but that would likely have been costly. Serena told BuzzFeed News there was another reason she didn’t get an attorney: “Because, I mean, I was guilty.”
But a lawyer might have made the argument that she was too poor to pay the fine. Mani Nezami, an attorney who has represented truancy defendants, said that 70 to 80 percent of his cases ultimately get thrown out. He jokes that he tells his wife it’s because he’s an amazing attorney, but the reality, he said, is “as long as you have a living, breathing advocate next to you, you will have a good chance of getting these cases dismissed.”
Ruby Shaw, the judge in charge of Serena’s truancy case, first told BuzzFeed News that she had never jailed anyone from her truancy court. After reporters shared records from Serena’s court file with Judge Shaw’s name on them, she conceded that she did know of some cases that resulted in jail time, but that she wasn’t the judge who gave Serena her final sentence.
The judge who sent Serena to the pen was Pedro Ruiz, who was presiding the day after Serena turned herself in. Ruiz did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Serena went into jail on a Wednesday. Seven of the nine days she spent behind bars were days that school was in session, meaning she fell further and further behind. But she had an even more pressing concern: the Texas law that allows 18-year-olds to be kicked out of school after five unexcused absences. Serena, who so often assumes the worst, figured she had been expelled.
She was released from jail on a Friday. The Fort Bend school district confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it dropped her from its rolls the following Monday. Superintendent Dupre, who took over shortly before this happened, said he didn’t know of Serena’s case specifically but that he was “not aware” of any students getting automatically revoked during his tenure. “And I can assure you,” he said, “that’s not something I would support.”
Serena said she never heard from anyone at Hightower High, and she never tried to go back. “I just kinda figured it was a lost cause,” she said.
By July of 2014, Serena had been out of school for nine months. She was unemployed, depressed, and had gained weight. It “kinda broke me,” she said.
One day, she found herself sitting before Juan Morales, the manager at Russo’s, an Italian restaurant a few miles from her trailer. Morales said that at first sight, Serena seemed like the last person he’d ever hire — “a depressed, quiet, sullen, upset kid.” But he interviewed her and gave her a chance. She excelled and was quickly promoted. She never skips work, Morales said.
If she had stayed on course at Hightower, Serena would be graduating this spring. She plans to go to the ceremony in support of her friend Jasmine. She’s not sure how she’ll feel about seeing her former classmates graduate. “If they’ll say hi to me, they’ll say hi to me,” Serena said. “If not, that’s life.”
Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting.