Houston Chronicle

Many high school students in Texas are concerned about keeping their grades up and getting into college. They know that a low GPA or standardized test score could have a negative impact on their future. What they may not realize, however, is that their school attendance (or lack thereof) could hit them even harder.

Texas is one of two states in the U.S. that charge students in adult criminal court for continuously missing class, according to a Houston Chronicle article. Students can be charged when they are as young as 12 years old, and they can be fined up to $500. The records of these charges are confidential, but they can have a harmful impact later on when potential schools or employers perform background checks.

These practices were spotlighted in a March 5 report released by Texas Appleseed, an advocacy group that fights against social and economic injustices. According to the report, 115,000 students in Texas were charged in accordance with truancy laws in 2013. This is twice as many cases as the other 49 states have combined. The Houston Chronicle also reports that “80 percent of the children sent to criminal court on truancy charges were economically disadvantaged, defined by their eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch.”

“These children are least able to afford steep fines typically levied in response to truancy charges,” said Deborah Fowler, executive director of Texas Appleseed. “Failure to pay fines, which can run as high as $500, can result in an arrest warrant and even incarceration,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Obviously, students of all incomes should go to school, but slapping lower-income students with a potentially unaffordable fine or an arrest warrant would only make matters worse. A child may have extenuating circumstances that could be handled in a far less dramatic way. Also, charging a student for missing school only exacerbates the problem, as they would be missing more school to appear in court. If their parents are called in, they would miss work, thus putting an even greater strain on many lower-income households.

According to the San Antonio Current, a school must file a Failure to Attend School Class C Misdemeanor charge if a student misses 10 days in a six-month period without approval. Schools may also file a Parent Contributing to Nonattendance against one or both of the student’s parents. 

Texas Appleseed argues against these measures, saying that children who are prosecuted on truancy charges have a higher chance of dropping out and later going to prison.

“In the vast majority of cases, the school, working with the student and family, could address the truancy problem if it made meaningful attempts to do so,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of Texas Appleseed’s School-to-Prison Pipeline Project. “Instead, schools often pass the responsibility to courts that are not designed, equipped or trained to provide meaningful assistance to students and their families.”

The Texas Appleseed report recommends that students who face truancy charges should not be tried in adult criminal court and that both students and parents should not be hit with misdemeanor charges, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Texas Appleseed is right to try and soften the blow of truancy charges against students and parents. Schools should, in many cases, have the opportunity to attempt to resolve truancy issues with students and parents before being forced to file charges against them. There will always be cases that need to be handled more aggressively, but the law should provide room for parents and students to discuss the issue with school districts.

Perhaps soon there will be some change. According to the Houston Chronicle, David Slayton, executive director of the Texas Judicial Council, agreed with Texas Appleseed, saying, “They have to deal with the issues. What is causing the child to miss school?”

Perhaps if schools are allowed to “deal with the issues,” students will be able to go back to worrying about tests and grades, not criminal charges.

Dolan is a journalism freshman from Abilene. Follow Dolan on Twitter @mimimdolan.

Photo Credit: Jonathan Garza | Daily Texan Staff

Gerald Johnson, former director of local advertising and digital services for the Houston Chronicle, has been named the new director of Texas Student Media, effective July 21. 

The appointment comes after TSM’s transition from the Division of Student Affairs to operating under the Moody College of Communication. 

“I am sincerely excited to be around creative people who typically don’t use a newspaper like people in the past generations have,” Johnson said.“I’m excited to see what their innovations and ideas are and just to be surrounded by a group of intelligent and creative people who ultimately want to get their message out but have great ideas on how to make that financially viable.”

TSM oversees five properties — The Daily Texan, Texas Travesty, KVRX, TSTV and the Cactus Yearbook — and has faced advertising revenue challenges in keeping with national trends over the last several years. In March, TSM interim director Frank Serpas said this year’s budget originally showed a loss of $115,000, but actually produced a loss of over $147,000.

Dave Player, law student and recent TSM Board of Operating Trustees president, said Johnson’s appointment serves as a good sign of what the working relationship with the Moody college will look like.

“He’s an extremely qualified candidate who had a really good background in media and knows Texas markets,” Player said. “Hopefully he brings new stability to the position, which is something we certainly need.”

During his tenure at the Houston Chronicle and Hearst Media, Johnson led a number of business development teams representing $12 million in annual revenue.

“One of the reasons I’ve been able to do that is that I’ve been able to balance the needs and desires of the editorial staff with how advertising works and what potential clients expect from a particular publication,” Johnson said.

Johnson, who will be tasked with day-to-day operations, said he believes TSM will benefit from more targeted sales efforts, utilization of existing content and an updated circulation model. According to Johnson, revenue could also be increased by the incorporation of advertorial — third party content that’s made to look more official — but editorial content connects with readers more so than advertorial does.

“When I have the choice, I always prefer editorial over advertorial…it has more credibility with the readers,” Johnson said. “Your readers, especially in a daily newspaper, get to know and love their columnists and the people who are writing for the publication.” 

At TSM's annual budget meeting in March, Hart said the Moody college will have a viable business plan in place by fall of 2017 to place TSM on the path back to financial stability. Hart requested transitional funding from President William Powers, Jr. to prevent TSM bankruptcy while the new business plan is developed.

KUT Radio director Stewart Vanderwilt said Johnson’s appointment is the first step in that process. 

“He presented and demonstrated a track record and a passion for securing revenue to support journalism and media enterprises and a belief in the role that student media has, not only in shaping our future careers, but in the community it serves,” Vanderwilt said. “There’s a lot of listening and learning to be done but my sense is that there’s a great deal of motivation in all quarters to achieve success.”

This story has been updated since its original publication.

Horns Up: Committee says Hall may have broken the law

According to a 176-page draft report obtained by the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle, UT System Regent Wallace Hall likely committed impeachable offenses — including abusing his power, leaking confidential information in an attempt to silence critics in the state legislature and attempting to coerce UT administrators to alter their testimony in committee hearings — and may even have violated state and federal law. The report was drafted by a House committee tasked with investigating Hall and his potential misconduct. While we can’t say that the report’s accusations come as much of  a surprise, Horns Up to the possibility that the Wallace Hall saga may soon come to an end, and the University administrators can refocus on actual student related issues. That way, we’ll finally be able to focus on something more worthwhile.


Horns Down: EEOC complaints on the rise in Texas

According to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report, Texas’ number of workplace discrimination and harassment complaints has increased in recent months. The Frisco Enterprise reported that the commission received 9,068 harassment and discrimination charges last year alone, which is an increase of 2 percent from the year before. While Texas’ incident reports increased, nationally, the number of harassments decreased by 6 percent last year. According to the commission, any unwelcome action based on factors including race, religion, sex, national origin, age or disability can be classified as harassment in the workplace. Horns Down to this unfortunate increase; it’s definitely not a positive outcome of the Texas workforce.

Update (1:16 p.m.): Rusty Hardin, special counsel to the committee, said the draft of the report was sent to state Reps. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, and Carol Alvarado, D-Houston , the co-chairs of the committee, last Tuesday.  Hardin said the other members of the committee received the report Friday.

Hardin said the members of the committee will review the draft of the report and will have a discussion with Hardin about any changes they see fit before the report is released to the public.

According to Hardin, the contract between his law firm, Rusty Hardin & Associates, LLP, and the transparency committee expired on March 31.

Original: A draft of the report prepared by the House transparency committee indicates that UT System Regent Wallace Hall likely committed impeachable offenses during his time as a member of the UT System Board of Regents, as reported by the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle.

The draft of the report, obtained by the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle, states Hall released student information in violation of federal privacy acts. The report states he manipulated the House investigation and coerced witnesses.

The draft of the report — written by Rusty Hardin, general counsel for the committee, and his law firm — said Hall continued to undermine the reputation of UT and President William Powers Jr., even after the committee asked him to stop, according to reports from the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle.  

According to the San Antonio Express-News/Houston Chronicle the report includes copies of emails Hall sent to members of the board stating Powers' termination would be easy to overcome.

The House Committee on Transparency in State Agency Operations has been investigating Hall since July 2013 for potentially overstepping his duties as a regent. He has been accused by some members of the state legislature as conducting a “witch-hunt” against Powers. 

According to testimony from Kevin Hegarty, executive vice president and chief financial officer at UT, Hall filed open records requests for over 800,000 pages of information from UT. System officials, including outgoing UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa, have said the actual number of pages is closer to 100,000.

Last November, the transparency committee heard testimony from Francie Frederick, general counsel for the Board of Regents. Frederick said Hall was mistakenly given access to private student information through his wide ranging open records requests.

In her testimony, Frederick said regents can have access to information protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act if they have a valid, job-related reason to see it. According to the draft of the report, the committee determined Hall did not have the appropriate reasons for seeking this information.

Philip Hilder, outside counsel to the System, submitted a report to the transparency committee in January, stating there was “no credible evidence” Hall violated any state laws regarding the release of data. In his report, Hilder said Hall requested all information protected by FERPA be redacted from the documents, but UT failed to completely remove all potentially problematic information when providing Hall with the requested documents.

Tensions between Powers and members of the board have been ongoing since 2011, when Powers asked Larry Sager, former dean of the School of Law, to resign after concerns arose regarding the foundation's forgivable loan program. Powers said he was unaware Sager awarded himself a $500,000 loan through the program, while Hall claimed he had evidence Powers was aware of the forgivable loan but chose not to take action. Powers has denied these claims.

In Feburary, Cigarroa announced he will be resigning as chancellor. Cigarroa said his decision to resign had nothing to do with the existing tensions between Powers and the board, although an email sent to Cigarroa by board Chairman Paul Foster suggested Hall accused Cigarroa of not doing his job weeks before Cigarroa announced his resignation.

HOUSTON ­— Friends and family gathered in Houston Saturday night to share memories of Lorena “Lori” Rodriguez, the first Hispanic editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan and former minority affairs reporter for the Houston Chronicle. Rodriguez died in her home in early June at age 62. The cause of her death is currently not known.

At Rodriguez’s memorial service, friends and family described Rodriguez as a talented writer, a passionate woman and someone who could be both quiet and incredibly outgoing.

“The stories I know about Lori Rodriguez are not sad,” said Steve Wisch, a former managing editor of The Daily Texan. “They are about a woman who has courage that burns like a fire and can write passionately.”

Rodriguez was editor-in-chief from 1971-72, an era when the newspaper was under pressure from the UT Board of Regents vying for more influence over the Texan. As the paper’s previous contract with Texas Student Publications was expiring, the Board of Regents reduced funding and pushed for a new contract that would give them more control of the editorial board in an effort to silence the Texan.

“She wrote persuasive, compelling, hard hitting editorials,” Wisch said. “She made it plain and clear in her own unique style that the only way The Daily Texan was going to go away was if they used bulldozers and forklifts and physically forced us out of the building.”

After graduating from UT, Rodriguez worked under U.S. Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in Washington before joining the Houston Chronicle in 1976.

At the Chronicle, Rodriguez became well known for her coverage of the Hispanic community. She was adept in her reporting and columns and wished to expand her coverage when she caught a rise in Houston’s Hispanic population during her tenure. In response, the Houston Chronicle created a minority affairs beat for Rodriguez.

“She never considered her minority affairs column writing position as a 9 to 5 job,” said Jack Loftis, former Houston Chronicle editor. “It was her life. It was her passion. And she never hesitated to tell her readers her position, and she never hesitated to tell her editors her position. And looking back, we were better for it.”

But friends stressed Rodriguez would not have wanted to be called an advocate for the Hispanic population. As a journalist, friends said Rodriguez strived for her objectivity. While she was working, former Chronicle assistant managing editor Fernando Dovalina said Rodriguez was bubbly and could command the attention of everyone she worked with.

“When she held court in the newsroom, everyone could hear her,” Dovalina said. “She was loud.”

But family said Rodriguez was quieter in her personal life. Martin Rodriguez, her older brother, said Lori’s death came as a surprise, and the family has been struggling to move on since.

“When she was working, she was loud and outgoing,” Martin Rodriguez said. “But she was so quiet and reserved outside of her job.”

Martin Rodriguez said the memorial had helped his family move forward.

“My sister was a loving person,” Martin said. “And she loved her city ­­­— she loved her city so much.”

Lorenza “Lori” Rodriguez, the first Hispanic editor-in-chief of The Daily Texan, was found dead in her home last week. She was 62.

Rodriguez was editor-in-chief from 1971-72, an era when the newspaper was under pressure from the UT Board of Regents. During her tenure, the Texas Students Publications’ 50-year contract neared expiration, and the Board of Regents attempted to push a new contract that would give the them more control of the editorial board. In 1971, the Board of Regents also reduced funding for the Texan.

Despite the obstacles she faced, many who knew her said she dealt with the controversies calmly.

After serving for one year as editor-in-chief of the Texan, Rodriguez went on to work as a columnist and reporter for the Houston Chronicle in 1976. She was one of the first Hispanics on city staff at the Chronicle and retired in 2008 after 32 years of service.

“There was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the student newspaper and the extent to which students would continue to have a free hand in covering the news and commenting on the news,” said David Powell, who was an assistant editor to Rodriguez in 1971 and succeeded Rodriguez as editor-in-chief the following year. “There was a lot of concern that the regents were trying to stifle the paper from covering the news and commenting on it.”

Although she was outspoken about issues on campus, Powell said Rodriguez was a wonderful person to be around and had a great laugh.

Griff Singer, a senior lecturer at the UT School of Journalism, said when Rodriguez was a student, she asked for advice about how to cover certain issues, not whether they should or shouldn’t be covered.

“I do not recall Lori ever coming to me to bounce a question about editorial or coverage policy,” Singer said. “That was just Lori, and I understood and respected that. She was an outspoken person. You knew what she believed in, and she sought to carry out those beliefs.”

On June 10, 1971, the Texan editorial board wrote under Rodriguez’s leadership in favor of a rule that would prohibit the regents from changing the Texan’s editorial board. In the editoral, the board stated the Texan will resist the regents’ attempts to take Texas Student Publications’ assets.

“The Texan reiterates that we are not going anywhere if it can be prevented,” the editorial said. “If the Texan were to be forced off-campus, it would have to be just that — forced.”

In an editorial later in the summer, the editorial board promised to fight for its rights as an independent newspaper.

“We are not the Athletic Council,” the editorial said. “We are not the Texas Student Union. We are a student newspaper. We are a free and independent press which always has been and still is under the direct management of Texas Student Publications, Inc. And the Daily Texan will fight to remain so.”

Tony Pederson, a former managing editor of the Houston Chronicle, said Rodriguez was a stylist and a storyteller with words.

“She proved to be an invaluable asset in creating a bridge between a mainstream city newspaper and the rapidly growing Hispanic community,” Pederson said. “She wrote stories that no other reporter could get or write and always handled them with sensitivity, taste and style.”

Pederson said his favorite memory of working with Rodriguez was a conversation he had with her in the late 1980s.

“She was incredibly passionate in explaining to me that, in her view, being a writer was the highest calling one could have,” Pederson said. “And she viewed it in the artistic sense of being able to craft a story of meaning and relevance and with a stylistic approach that would please readers.”

Pederson said answering this calling gave Rodriguez personal satisfaction.

“Young journalists should take her passion to heart,” Pederson said. “Even in the digital age, if we forget style and writing, shame on us. Lori would tell us that it’s still storytelling that matters.”

UT System Board of Regents officials may have made the controversial hire of a special adviser without the necessary recommendation from the chancellor, according to emails obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

In February, the Board of Regents hired Rick O’Donnell to report to the board for two task forces on efficiency and online learning. His salary was originally set at $200,000 per year.

Lawmakers, University officials, alumni and donors expressed concern through statements and letters to the board about O’Donnell’s writings on higher education reform that call for lowered emphasis on research. Concerns centered on O’Donnell’s work with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a think tank that advocates for more emphasis on teaching versus research at public universities. In response, the board shortened O’Donnell’s appointment and reassigned him to report to System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa until Aug. 31.

The emails obtained by the Chronicle indicate board chairman Gene Powell and general counsel to the board Francie Frederick created the job posting and made the hiring decision.

The Chronicle reported the chancellor wrote asking for specifics on the position after it was posted online Feb. 11.

“I really do not know full responsibilities — just generalities,” Cigarroa wrote, according to the Chronicle. “Who is going to announce this to our officers? They should not be caught by surprise.”

After the making the hire on Feb. 28, Frederick told Powell to inform the rest of the board and the chancellor of the hire, according to the emails. Four days later, Frederick informed Powell the chancellor was up to date.

The System defended its hiring of the adviser. A spokesman said the hiring process for O’Donnell wasn’t out of the ordinary and adhered to all relevant state regulations.

“It is my understanding the Board Office followed standard and established recruitment and hiring processes as administered by the Office of Employee Services,” said system spokesman Anthony DeBruyn.

System policy makes the board responsible for hiring or appointing all system employees “upon the recommendation of the Chancellor.”