Texas Teenager Diane Tran Jailed for Working Hard

A judge threw an Asian-American high school student in jail because the multiple jobs she works to support her family made her late to class. By Joie Chen.

By any measure, Diane Tran is that “model minority” Asian-American teen you think you already know.

She’s a Vietnamese-American high-school honor student in Willis, Texas. Takes AP and other college level classes. Works two jobs to help support her siblings. Hopes to go to medical school one day.

Now here’s the part you weren’t expecting: Diane Tran spent a night in jail last week. Her crime? Truancy.

It’s not that Diane doesn’t like school—she’s an honor student. But with serious financial strains on her family, Diane took on a heavy workload. The 17-year-old took the jobs she could get, worked all hours of the night. Through the weekends. And she kept up that heavy course load.

Diane got tired. So tired she missed classes some days, came late to school on others. In Texas, that’s enough to get you in trouble with the law.

Diane ended up before Montgomery County Judge Lanny Moriarty, who decided the honor student needed to learn a lesson about responsibility, of all things. So he had her jailed and fined her $100.

No, really. He did.

He wouldn’t back down either. A local reporter explained the details of Diane’s case. Judge Moriarty said he couldn’t appear “soft” on this kind of thing. “If you let one of them run loose what are you gonna do with the rest of them?” the judge told KHOU-TV. “Let them go too?”

Moriarty is now taking a beating in the digital world, where Diane’s plight has already drawn over $90,000 in donations and more than 235,000 signatures asking him to revoke the charge, since her “criminal record” could dim her hopes of attending a top-tier college.

Word came late Wednesday that Moriarty had dropped the contempt-of-court charge, meaning it can be expunged from Diane’s record.

But he can’t give back the night she’s already spent in jail.

Nor can he undo the attention he’s brought to a rarely discussed issue. Given all that she’s up against, Diane Tran could easily go from being an honor student to part of a far-less-desirable statistic.

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Children of Southeast Asian descent have the highest high-school dropout rate of any group in the United States. That’s right. One third of Asian-American public high-school students drop out or fail to graduate on time.

Impossible, you say. What about Tiger Mothers, or the value of education to Asian- immigrant families, or the overrepresentation of Asian-American kids at top universities?

“Diane’s story is representative of many Southeast Asian families,” says C.N. Le, director of UMass-Amherst’s Asian Studies department. This is especially true of newer immigrants who came because of conflict or politics in their home countries.

Refugee parents arrive with less education, limited English, and few resources. The kids frequently drop out of school to help out; they become their family’s financial lifeline.

Shattering another “model-minority” myth, there are far more poor Asian-Americans than you might think. Fourteen percent of Asian Americans have incomes below the poverty line—more than the general U.S. population.

For a young person like Diane, the professor says, the hurdles to academic success are enormous. “The starting line is a lot further back. Compounding the tragedy by punishing them is unjust.”

We don’t know what Diane thinks of all this. After an initial teary statement, she’s sworn off any more interviews until Friday.

That’s because this is finals week at Willis High School, and Diane Tran takes her studies seriously.