Texas judge expunges truancy records in accordance with new law

With a click of the mouse, Williamson County Justice of the Peace Bill Gravell expunged 2,208 records for people who’ve wound up with truancy-related criminal charges over the past 20 years, giving them “another shot of life,” he said.

Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whittier, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records in Williamson County.
Terra Tucker, policy analyst for Sen. John Whitmire, and Judge Bill Gravell expunge criminal truancy records on his courtroom computer in Williamson County.

When Texas lawmakers discussed several bills to decriminalize truancy during the 84th legislative session, they heard often from Gravell, who initially opposed changes to the 1995 law. Gravell’s program was plenty successful, he would say, indicating he didn’t need the state’s help in keeping kids in school.

The bill, HB 2398, eventually passed and became law, making truancy a civil matter. On Thursday, as he sat before a table covered with baskets of the records-to-be-destroyed, he called the new law the “best piece of legislation possible.”

A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.
A bailiff walks near baskets of records that Judge Bill Gravell ordered to be destroyed in accordance with a new truancy law.

Previously, students who racked up 10 unexcused absences in six months could have faced a Class C misdemeanor. In 2014, nearly 100,000 students fell in that category. The new law – effective Tuesday – directs courts to expunge those charges.

Texas Appleseed Executive Director Deborah Fowler, who worked with Gravell and others to craft the bill, said her organization is watching how courts address the expunction portion of the law and praised Gravell’s actions.

“We’re pleased to see that some of the most vocal opponents have really come around,” she said. 

Fowler called the mass release from criminal convictions “unprecedented,” noting about 100,000 students were criminally charged each year for the past 10 years.

In addition to the expunctions, Gravell cleared three outstanding truancy cases, dismissed 100 outstanding truancy warrants, lifted suspensions on driver’s licenses for 87 students and waived collections for 16 people who owed the county fees.

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