- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Disabled students say they were charged with truancy and funneled out of public schools, according to an official complaint they filed Wednesday, accusing 13 districts and the Texas Education Agency of violating federal law.

Three nonprofits - Disability Rights Texas, the National Center for Youth Law and Texas Appleseed - mailed the complaint to the Texas Education Agency on behalf of the students, but are seeking an outside investigator. They accuse the agency and the districts, including those in Austin, Houston, Fort Worth and San Antonio, of violating the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Texas Education Agency declined to comment on the complaint, since it has not yet been received, spokeswoman DeEtta Culberson said. She added that the groups did email the agency informing them of the complaint.

The agency has 60 days to investigate the complaint and decide whether the districts are violating the federal law.

“Based on our review of available data and our conversations with students and parents, they have not appropriately overseen the districts in their implementation of the act,” Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed, said about the agency.

The districts are accused of failing to give students with disabilities individualized education services.

After racking up 10 unexcused absences within six months, Texas students can be charged with failure to attend school, a Class C misdemeanor. The complaint states that during the court process, students with disabilities are funneled out of public schools and pushed into GED programs, alternative schools or mandatory homeschooling.

Between 2010 and 2013, about 1,200 students with disabilities failed GED tests they were ordered by courts to take after being charged with truancy, a criminal offense.

“A GED program is almost never going to be successful for a student with disabilities,” said Dustin Rynders, supervising attorney with Disability Rights Texas.

While data from the agency showed how many students were forced to take GED tests, Rynders said other families - it’s unknown how many - “agree to pull out” of free public schools because they can’t afford the fines, which can be up to $500.

This legislative session, several lawmakers filed bills to decriminalize truancy after nearly 100,000 Texas students received misdemeanors for too many unexcused absences in fiscal year 2014. Two proposals have survived and now contain similar language that authors say is amenable to Gov. Greg Abbott. Both measures were heavily amended, so lawmakers from both bodies will have to negotiate final versions.

Republican Rep. James White, who is carrying the proposal in the House, said the complaint shows “exactly why we need to change the law.”

Another surviving proposal was voted out of the Senate 26-5 on Wednesday.

Opponents of the bill, including some Texas judges, have said they prefer to maintain the current system, which allows them to use a criminal charge as a last resort.

In 2013, the same three groups filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice accusing Dallas-area public schools of being too harsh with truancy rules. The federal department in March announced it was opening a civil rights investigation into Dallas County juvenile courts and due process for truant children.

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Follow Eva Ruth Moravec at www.twitter.com/evaruth .

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