Judge Punishes Honours Student With Two Jobs for Being Late To School

Oddly enough, the best place for youth is not the prison system.
Publish date:
May 30, 2012
education, race, prison, school, this will work out GREAT I'm sure

All of us have skipped school or showed up a little late now and then, am I right? Some of us have even had mighty good excuses for it, and for those of us who schooled in more lenient eras, the punishment was usually a fingerwagging, and perhaps some detention. More and more districts these days are cracking down on truancy, though, taking a zero tolerance stance and heavily penalising students who show up to school late or not at all, especially if it's a recurrent problem.

So when Diane Tran ended up missing class again after being warned in court about her truancy, the judge summoned her and had her arrested when she arrived in court. Tran was slapped with 24 hours in jail and a $100 fine. You tell ‘em, judge. Bet every truant high school student in Willis, Texas is trembling in fear of such penalties.

Except there’s more to this story than meets the eye, as Colorlines pointed out when it drew attention to the situation. Diane is an honors student, taking advanced placement and dual credit classes in a grueling schedule. With a commitment to her education like that, you might wonder how she’d be truant, and the answer lies in the fact that on top of being a super-student, Diane also works two jobs to support her two siblings in the wake of being abandoned by her parents.

Diane Tran and friend. (Still from KHOU coverage of the case.)

Her older brother attends Texas A&M, while her younger sister is in the care of relatives. Tran races between jobs at a winery and a dry cleaners (that one, incidentally, is full time) in addition to managing her coursework. Personally, I think she deserves a Badass of the Year award, and a whole lot more social support, because that is a lot of work to put on the shoulders of a 17-year-old girl.

My "Sherlock"-obsessed mind jumped on this story, because the supervillain’s judge’s name is Moriarty. I mean, the headline practically writes itself. Well, except that Emily always rewrites my headlines because she is mean1.

Seriously, though, working students are not that uncommon, and I’m not just talking about students with an after-school job or a few hours on the weekend for funny money2. Low-income students are often forced to work to help support their families while attending school, and not necessarily in the most legal of circumstances; I had my first job at 11, for example, despite the fact that the legal working age (with some exceptions) in California is 14.

And I was a leg up on even younger workers who don’t even have a chance to go to school at all because they’re too busy in the workplace, primarily California’s agricultural fields. Tran’s situation is not at all unique, and like a lot of low-income working students, she’s pushing herself as hard as she can in the hopes of building a better life for herself and her family.

Strong grades equal better chances in college, and a better shot at a high-paying career (hopefully in a field she’s interested in). She wants to become a doctor, and it sounds like she’s prepared for the intense study and training that goes with that. Doing well at the honors level in school can require a lot of work; even when you don’t have employment outside school, it can be grueling to be a junior or senior in high school with a heavy courseload and she's proved herself capable of managing it, for the most part.

To add not just the physical but emotional work of labour to support your family is intense. It’s not surprising that Tran struggles with fatigue and sometimes shows up late for school or misses entire days. Clearly, the school is aware that she’s a good student who is focused and working hard, so one would think they’d cut her a break, work on a partial independent study schedule, and come up with some other plans to help her finish her high school education while staying employed.

She needs the work and the school, like a lot of people in her position.

Informed about the special circumstances, MORIARTY said he wanted to make a lesson out of her and had no intention of giving her some lenience. Welcome to the world of zero tolerance policies, which are growing quite trendy at high schools across the nation. Much like crappy three strikes crime laws in many US states, they’re supposed to project a “tough on crime” stance and strike fear into the hearts of miscreants.

What they actually do is clog the system and create snarled messes because there’s no room for considering extenuating factors, and the power tends to go to the heads of those in charge. Like MORIARTY, for example.

Research is starting to indicate that these kinds of truancy policies contribute directly to the school-to-prison pipeline, which funnels youth directly into the prison system, do not pass go, do not collect $200. Oddly enough, the best place for youth is not the prison system, and in fact it seems to be a place where youth become mired in missed opportunities, are vulnerable to assault, don't get a chance to develop useful skills, and do leave with an increased chance of recidivism and escalating criminal activity. In other words, jailing youth is not a good idea.

Rather than addressing the root causes behind truancy, like unmet student needs and problems at home, zero tolerance policies for truancy create more problems than they solve. In Tran’s case, her school’s ridiculous policy and the judge's actions just caused her to miss a day of work – and possibly school, depending on when her jail time is served. I hope the judge changes his mind in this case, but it doesn't answer the larger problem created by zero tolerance policies and the school districts who love them.

1. Fact: I once saw Emily McCombs take candy from a baby. Return

2. Does anyone still say “funny money?” Return