Truant Honor Student’s Case Raises Vexing Issues

Diane Tran is an 11th grade honor student enrolled in advanced and dual-credit courses, who works a part-time and a full-time job to help support her siblings following their parents’ divorce. Unfortunately, these pressures led her to miss a few days of school each month, and after a warning about her truancy in April, Tran had another absence in May. On Wednesday, May 23, she was held in contempt of court for failing to follow the judge’s orders and promptly jailed (on a school night) and fined $100.

As the judge pointed out, one night in jail and a $100 fine is not a death sentence. However, it is an unnecessary difficulty for heavily burdened young woman who was already short on time and money. Moreover, the contempt charge could have become a permanent blemish on her record, potentially discoverable by prospective employers and college admissions offices.  Tran had the privilege of considering all this while being held in the same jail as prostitutes, drunks, and other criminals, all because she was too exhausted a few times a month to make it to class.

Tran’s case highlights some serious problems with the public education system, which needs to be more flexible to avoid these problems in the future. For example, by incorporating more digital learning, Tran likely could have made up for missed class time, and could “attend” class when it better fit her hectic schedule. Schools are supposed to serve the needs and interests of students, not punish students for being too responsible.

While Tran may have technically broken the law by missing too many days of class, the essential purpose of the law is to protect children from irresponsible behavior, by either themselves or their parents. Tran is anything but irresponsible. Moreover, truancy laws designed to keep kids in class may not have been the best tool in Tran’s case, all things considered. The judge applied the letter of the law, but the unique nature of the law and the specific circumstances surrounding Tran’s breaking of the law led to an unjust outcome.

The juvenile justice system was specifically created to be different than the adult system, by addressing, on a case-by-case basis, the unique circumstances presented by different juveniles. There are many innovative approaches in juvenile justice that can be more successful than traditional approaches. While Tran, age 17, is legally an adult in Texas, she might have benefited from an approach similar to that in the juvenile justice system. This is illustrated by the widespread public outrage over Tran’s punishment, as well as the judge’s decision to vacate his contempt of court order.

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