The 11th-grader in the courtroom wore braces, loved Harry Potter movies, and posted Katy Perry lyrics on Facebook. She also had a bad habit of cutting school, and now, a judge informed her, she owed $2,700 in truancy-related fines. But Serena Vela, who lived in a trailer with her unemployed mother, couldn’t afford to pay.
Serena was offered “jail credit” at a rate of $300 per day. She was patted down, touched “everywhere,” and dispatched to adult lockup, where she would stay for nine days, missing a week and a half of classes. The first school day after she was released, administrators kicked her out.
She had gone to jail because of a law intended to keep kids on the path to graduation. Instead, her high school career was over.
Serena is one of more than 1,000 Texas teenagers who have been ordered to jail in the last three years on charges stemming from missing school, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. The students get locked up with adults, sometimes inmates charged with assault, robbery and other violent crimes.