In an effort to reduce the number of truancy cases being referred to the courts and help divert students from criminal charges, the Texas House on Wednesday will take up a bill that establishes tiered truancy interventions for students, and eliminates criminal penalties for truancy in favor of civil sanctions. A similar bill passed the Senate in April.

Truancy has been a lingering problem that has plagued Texas. Every year, nearly 100,000 truancy violations are brought against Texas students, each being punishable as Class C misdemeanors. According to one investigation, Texas even leads the country in levying such penalties. Continued absence from school can contribute to below-average performance or failure in the classroom, but recently, there has been recognition that the current system of handing out criminal penalties for absenteeism isn’t addressing the problem adequately.

House Bill 1490 seeks to change this. The bill would amend the current education code to establish graduated “truancy interventions”, a tiered program that would initially involve parent/student/administrator conferences to set goals and monitor student progress. Beginning with at least three unexcused absences, the first tier also requires an attendance contract that highlights expectations of the student, as well as future consequences should the student continue to miss school. Subsequent truancy would lead to additional tiers that include community service, weekend courses to ensure academic progress, and restorative justice programs. All of these tiers are school-based to emphasize the importance of school attendance.

In addition to these intervention programs, the bill would also eliminate criminal penalties for truancy in favor of civil fines not to exceed $100. It also amends the Code of Criminal Procedure to entitle an individual convicted of a truancy violation, or who has had a complaint of such a violation dismissed, to have those records automatically expunged from their record.

Taken together, the reforms in HB 1490 would handle truancy in a school setting, which reduces the need for referral of such cases to the courts, and eliminates criminal complaints which can hamper students later in life. The prevailing theory regarding truancy is that stiff punishment encourages attendance, yet absenteeism continues apace. HB 1490 seeks a new course–away from a one-size-fits-all approach to an individualized one that hopes to keep students where they belong: in the classroom.