NEW CANEY- Twenty-one high students were arrested for contempt of court on Tuesday in the court of Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts and will remain incarcerated for 72 hours. All 21 of the New Caney and Splendora High School students, ranging in age from 17 to 19, violated court orders to attend school and disregarded the Judge’s warnings.
Metts said he took no pleasure in sending the teens to jail. Because the law recognizes age 17 and up as an adult, the teens were placed in the Montgomery County Jail, and not in the juvenile facility next door.
“I just want our children to go to school and have every opportunity to succeed in life,” Metts said. “But not everyone takes advantage of that opportunity, and those few who do not, unfortunately, must bear the consequences.”
“It is truly a shame that it had to come to this,” he said.
When the judge initially learns students are truant, he typically orders them to perform community service and / or pay a fine. They are also court-ordered to attend school. Any additional unexcused absences prompt a “Show Cause” hearing, which gives the student an opportunity to explain to Judge Metts why the absence was unavoidable.
“If the absence was justifiable, such as illness, then they’re okay; but we cannot tolerate juveniles not being at school and out on the streets causing trouble,” Metts said.
From the bench, the judge told the students that being court-ordered to attend school put the next offense on an entirely different level.
“If you don’t go to school, you’re going to jail,” Metts said. “It’s nothing personal from me- that’s the last thing I want.”
The Judge said the students had stood before him “numerous” times and been given many other options, but continued the behavior, despite being warned.
“Basically, they put themselves in jail,” Metts said.
Some teens were laughing as they were escorted out of the courtroom en route to the jail, but the judge said he hoped their attitudes would change after they were booked in.
“Maybe they think it’s a joke, but it’s not a joke to me,” he said. “It’s very serious that they get an education.”
Metts said 78 percent of current Texas inmates’ first interaction with law enforcement was regarding truancy. Furthermore, he said it was proven in the community that kids who were skipping school were getting involved in criminal activities, such as burglarizing homes, which is a second-degree felony.
“If you’re in school, you’re not going to have that problem,” he told them.
Precinct 4 Constable Kenneth “Rowdy” Hayden agreed. Hayden works closely with Metts and many of the offenders who appear in his court. He praised the judge’s “firm stand against juvenile truancy in East Montgomery County, saying it was important to keep kids in school because “they’re our most valuable asset.” When truant, teens can also be a real liability.
“When we have truancy in the schools, the daytime crime rate increases,” Hayden said. “We’ve tied up a lot of our resources with juvenile truancy.”
Metts said his precinct is considering the possibility of ankle monitors for the worst truancy cases, which has been a very effective measure in places like San Antonio. A meeting is scheduled today to examine the option more closely.
Meanwhile, a tremendous amount of the court’s time is spent dealing with the truancy problem, which means Precinct 4 Deputy Constables must also devote time to the issue. The deputies assigned as bailiffs in Metts’ court were responsible for escorting the students to jail. Metts called their assistance “invaluable.”
Hayden said he appreciated the assistance of Montgomery County Sheriff Tommy Gage, who provided three jail vans for the transport.
Metts said the incarceration was not about punishment, but about trying to get the teens to “do the right thing” and steer away from the path that leads to destruction.
Tuesday was not the first time Metts sentenced students to jail time, but it was the largest number in a single day.