This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on May 26, 2015.

The school year is wrapping up for students across Texas. Youths all over the state are preparing for exams or even graduation. Unfortunately, some students — and their families — are dealing with something very different: court dates and jail time.

Texas is a compulsory attendance state, which means that students are required to attend school up to the day that they turn 18. This rule has the best of intentions — encouraging children to attend school and finish their education — to prepare them for the world as an adult. Despite this, there are regrettable side effects.

Prosecution of truancy in Texas is widespread. In fact, the number of truancy cases prosecuted in Texas is more than twice the number prosecuted in all other states combined, according to a recent report by Texas Appleseed. This report revealed that more than 100,000 filings have been made for FTAS – Failure to Attend School – across Texas in 2013, while all other states prosecuted around 50,000.

The data clearly shows that prosecution is not the best way to respond to truancy. There are often complicated issues causing the truant behavior, some stemming from serious disadvantages that the student is suffering. The student may be struggling with mental or physical disabilities, lack of transportation or even homelessness. In these situations, a court date and fines only exacerbate the problem.

In past years, there has been some interest in addressing truancy in the state. In 2011, legislation was passed to address the fact that some individuals aged 18 to 21 were being prosecuted for FTAS after returning to school to finish their education. Legally these proceedings are now limited to juveniles. Despite this, truancy prosecutions are still remarkably high.

Interest is growing regarding the issue, particularly with concern that these children are not being awarded appropriate attention and legal rights. A recent lawsuit against Fort Bend Independent School District alleges that the truancy court set up there is actually illegal, as it operates without legislative mandate, unlike the nearby Dallas court, which was specifically established by statute.

Appleseed’s report raises even more systemic causes for concern in the truancy world. Due process rights – the rights awarded to individuals in the criminal justice system, such as the right to an attorney – are not always available in truancy cases. Juvenile courts are equipped to handle children and ensure that they understand their rights and obtain counsel for children to prevent miscarriage of justice. When children are prosecuted in Justice of the Peace or municipal courts, they often end up waiving their rights without full comprehension — and do so without the protection of counsel.

This session there have been numerous efforts to reform truancy policy, including setting up a fund through the county courts that provides assistance to families to remove barriers to attendance. This policy reform has been incorporated into a separate effort that targets several different sides of truancy. It would require schools to dedicate staff to finding the causes of truancy and addressing it before it becomes an issue, as well as establishing a scale to prevent overfining of parents and students after the fact.

Children are leaving school soon, but they do not need to leave with an arrest on their record or a fine pulling them or their families into debt.

Muldrow is a research associate with the Texas Public Policy Foundation.