Most people who work with truants say the parents are part of the problem. But is criminal action against the parents the right solution?
Yes, according to districts that are getting more aggressive in criminally prosecuting parents whose children rack up unexcused absences or show up late repeatedly.
Nationwide, more systems are resorting to punitive measures to command the attention of parents and make a point.
Earlier this year, parents in Loudoun County, Va., were stunned to find sheriff’s deputies at their front doors with court summons. The parents faced Class 3 misdemeanors because their children had been late too many times.
In a story on the summons, the Washington Post focused on one peeved couple whose three children had glowing report cards, but the parents were still summoned to court because of how often the kids were tardy. An attorney, the father argued that the summons represented an out-of-control nanny state. The Post story drew 868 comments.
Many posters contended it was wrong to criminalize lateness. So taking kids to school late repeatedly is a bad idea and impacts everyone — conceded. However, is it criminal behavior? Do you all really understand the significance of criminalizing everything in this country? We’ve all gotten so used to the massive overreach of government we don’t even stop to consider that there are better ways to manage our society. How about we handle it in the local school instead of in the courts?
But others argued that the parents ought to own up to their mistakes: The school didn’t take this action because a child was tardy once or twice. It obviously was becoming a routine and disruptive to other students and the school staff. Part of the education of the kids is learning that it’s important to follow rules. If the rules aren’t reasonable then you work to change them through the normal processes. I don’t think the acceptable process is teaching children to blatantly break rules if you don’t like them. I bet that doesn’t work at home! This is pretty simple. Go to court and explain that you are now following the rules, apologize, accept the suspended fine, and get the kids to school on time.
Cheryl McCoy and Danelle Swanson were led away in cuffs, each charged with educational neglect, after DeKalb Sheriff’s deputies pounded on their doors.
“When we get eight unexcused absences, that’s when we are getting involved,” said Sherry Boston, the DeKalb solicitor-general. The DeKalb County School District referred 900 cases to her office last year for truancy violations, she said.
The sweep underscores a nagging problem: truancy increases the likelihood that a student will eventually drop out. And students who drop out are likely to occupy a low rung on the economic ladder or a prison cell. Nine of 10 prison inmates in Georgia are high school dropouts
In Cobb County, the number of court referrals last year was around 350, said Paul Pursell, the school system’s truancy coordinator. Police complain to him that truants commit daytime burglaries and other mischief. Both Atlanta and Cobb schools refer cases to the courts after 10 unexcused absences, but school counselors and social workers get involved far earlier, typically after three unexplained absences.
Denise Revels, the coordinator of social work services for Atlanta Public Schools, said students who fail to attend until age 16, as the law requires, affect everyone. “They don’t become productive citizens,” she said. “So it’s a societal problem.”
School officials link parents with social services that try to help. This summer, Atlanta experimented with a month-long summer camp that placed 40 truant middle school students with Atlanta police officers. The kids took field trips, did community service, attended police training and bonded with cops, who plan to follow up with them during this school year.
“Court is really the last resort for us,” Revels said.
Sometimes, though, it’s the only option. About 70 of those 900 DeKalb court referrals last year failed to appear for their meeting with the judge, leading to bench warrants for their arrest, said Sgt. Adrion Bell, spokesman for Sheriff Tom Brown.
Swanson, 26, failed didn’t show for court after her child missed 16 days of kindergarten. McCoy, 43, skipped court after her teenager missed 37 days of middle school. Boston asks judges to impose one day in jail for each day of school missed, but only two or three cases actually got that far last year, she said. “The vast majority of our parents just need help and guidance.”
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog