Karnes City families say county attorney’s pursuit of truancy crossed way over the line

Internal school district records reveal possible overreach of office by Jennifer Dillingham

The aggressive approach to combat truancy came weeks after Karnes County Attorney Dillingham had pledged to do that very thing, stating in a Facebook video posted that August that she would prosecute parents and their children if the students reached 10 absences.

KARNES CITY, Texas – In September 2020, Leticia Hernandez got a panicked phone call at work from her mother.

As she watched from her own home located on the same piece of Karnes City land, Hernandez’s mother said a group of adults were entering Hernandez’s home.

When she arrived home, Hernandez found two people standing by her front door and Karnes County Attorney Jennifer Dillingham inside her residence.

Dillingham claimed Hernandez’s son, 10 years old at the time, was truant, and that if Hernandez didn’t register him for school that day she could face up to three days in jail.

Hernandez’s son later recalled being told by Dillingham to get dressed because she was going to personally take him to school.

“Jennifer, being the county attorney for so long, she should have known better,” said Hernandez, pointing out that Dillingham had entered her home without a warrant.

Hernandez also took issue with her child being labeled “truant,” a legal phrase used to describe a student who repeatedly misses school without a justified reason.

Hernandez, who works at a medical office and has seen first-hand the deadly impact of COVID-19, said she had made the decision to keep her children off campus and in virtual learning that fall, as schools across the country grappled with how to handle the virus.

Hernandez said she returned home on her lunch break each day to make sure her son was properly logged in for virtual speech therapy sessions.

Maria Villanueva, Hernandez’s sister, also has a home on the same plot of land, and said Dillingham also entered a second residence there that day in search of children who were not physically at school. She walked in on her son who was sleeping in his boxers, Villanueva said.

“He wakes up to somebody, ‘hey, wake up,’ screaming at him to wake up. He sees a lady in front of him,” said Villanueva, who added that Dillingham was also looking for her daughter.

“If she says something, you know, she’s up here, I’m down here. I don’t really have too much over her,” said Villanueva, describing Dillingham’s powerful position within the small community southeast of San Antonio.

Records about whether these students were properly logging into virtual classes that fall were not made available to KSAT Investigates.

While the women claim Dillingham told them that the two people with her were Karnes City Independent School District staff members, law enforcement later clarified, stating that one was the junior high principal and the other was actually an assistant from Dillingham’s county attorney office.

The aggressive approach to combat truancy came weeks after Dillingham had pledged to do that very thing, stating in a Facebook video posted that August that she would prosecute parents and their children if the students reached 10 absences.

“So it is my promise to you, Karnes County, your child and I will be seeing each other if you are not enrolled in school and actively engaging. I will prosecute these cases and I will make sure that we get on the right track. The most important thing that I do is make sure that our students are successful,” said Dillingham during the four-minute video.

Texas has moved away from criminalizing truancy

Dillingham, thanks to her victory in the Republican primary earlier this year, is judge-elect for the 81st Judicial District — no Democrats ran for the elected office.

She will take office in January for the position that covers Karnes, Frio, LaSalle, Atascosa and Wilson counties.

St. Edward’s University Associate Professor Dr. Carsten Andresen, a criminal justice expert, said he was “stunned” by Dillingham’s behavior.

“Everybody has moved away from a criminal justice response to truancy. It seems that she is way out of bounds in what she is doing,” said Andresen, pointing to Dillingham’s push for court intervention despite a 2015 state law that took massive steps to decriminalize truancy in Texas.

House Bill 2398, which became law in September 2015, made it easier for Texas citizens to have truancy records expunged and put policies in place to have school districts, instead of courts, intercede when a student begins to rack up absences.

The law has contributed to a more than 70% decrease in the number of truancy cases filed against students in Texas in the past decade.

Records show a sharp decrease in truancy cases being filed against minors in Texas the past decade. (KSAT)

Hernandez and Villanueva said they filed criminal complaints against Dillingham after the September 2020 incident at their homes.

Records provided to KSAT Investigates by the Texas Attorney General’s Law Enforcement Division show that Dillingham was investigated by that office for possible official oppression in late 2020 and early last year.

The case was eventually declined for prosecution, law enforcement records show.

Reached by phone, Dillingham described her relationship with Karnes City ISD as “complicated.”

Dillingham serves as president of the Karnes City ISD Education Foundation but is not a paid employee of the district.

After agreeing to meet with KSAT Investigates earlier this year, Dillingham subsequently canceled and her assistant said she was out of town at a conference when KSAT Investigates stopped by Dillingham’s office.

We eventually caught up with her as she left work last month.

Asked about visiting homes of students involved in possible truancy cases, Dillingham said she had not made any unauthorized visits.

“I’m just a public servant working hard as the county attorney, so I appreciate your time very much,” said Dillingham.

After KSAT Investigates again asked her why she showed up to the homes, Dillingham said she did not present to be a law enforcement officer. She then got into her vehicle and drove away.

‘Tried to sort of play kingmaker in the independent school district’

Hundreds of pages of internal school district records detail a combative relationship between Dillingham and the district’s superintendent and shed light on Dillingham possibly acting outside the boundaries of her office.

Sonya Elliott, the former principal of Karnes City Junior High and a member of the group who searched for truant students along with Dillingham in September 2020, confirmed to KSAT Investigates that Dillingham copy-edited her written exit interview after Elliott resigned in the summer of 2021.

In the lengthy document, Elliott repeatedly called out Karnes City ISD Superintendent Hector Madrigal by name, questioning his professional demeanor and ethics and stating that he uses bully tactics.

“Once I began challenging Mr. Madrigal on decisions that weren’t rooted or based on the needs of kids, he began making the work environment quite hostile,” wrote Elliott.

Former Karnes City Jr. High principal Sonya Elliott's June 2021 exit letter repeatedly criticized Superintendent Hector Madrigal. (KSAT)

Elliott, who now works in education in the Dallas area, defended what she wrote in the letter during a phone call with KSAT Investigates earlier this year and said that Dillingham had been authorized by the district to try to make contact with truant students at their homes.

Madrigal declined a request to be interviewed for this story.

KSAT Investigates could find no record that he has been implicated in any ethics violations or other professional misconduct.

Late last year, KCISD staff were included on an email from Dillingham asking for financial support for her candidacy for 81st District Judge.

Dillingham said via telephone she was not sure how many KCISD staff members or board members received the fundraising request, but acknowledged sending it after KSAT Investigates informed her it was included in the district’s release of internal records.

Last November, in a message sent from Dillingham’s official county email address, she questioned whether Madrigal had properly investigated a possible student-to-student death threat.

Weeks later, in early December, Dillingham again messaged Madrigal from her county email account instructing him what to do after allegations arose that a juvenile sex offender on probation had been caught having sex with a student in a Karnes City High School bathroom.

“I don’t think she has the judgment to be a district judge. Somebody who has taken a little bit of power from the county attorney and tried to sort of play kingmaker in the independent school district, has sort of tried to prosecute children and their parents for difficulties during COVID-19 with school attendance and logging onto schools is not somebody that has the temperament to be a district judge, in my humble opinion,” said Andresen.

KSAT Investigates could find no record that Dillingham has been implicated in or disciplined for any professional misconduct in her role as county attorney.

About the Authors:

Emmy-award winning reporter Dillon Collier joined KSAT Investigates in September 2016. Dillon's investigative stories air weeknights on the Nightbeat and on the Six O'Clock News. Dillon is a two-time Houston Press Club Journalist of the Year and a Texas Associated Press Broadcasters Reporter of the Year.

Joshua Saunders is an Emmy award-winning photographer/editor who has worked in the San Antonio market for the past 20 years. Joshua works in the Defenders unit, covering crime and corruption throughout the city.