Playing hooky? Parent may pay
A new county judge and the federal No Child Left Behind laws mean a crackdown on truants - and their parents.
By MICHAEL KRUSE
Published March 19, 2006
BROOKSVILLE - Hernando County Judge Don Scaglione three weeks ago sentenced crying Doreen Corpas to six months' probation for keeping her son out of school for 112 of the 180 days of the 2004-05 school year.
The scene that Friday afternoon in a quiet, third-floor courtroom fits into a growing coast-to-coast crackdown on truancy, which includes police roundups of kids and their parents, the taking away of drivers' licenses and criminal prosecution. A woman in Rockville, Md., was sentenced this month to two nights in jail for not making her sons go to school. She could face more time if their attendance doesn't improve.
In Hernando, a school official said, the Corpas case reflects a change on the bench. Former County Judge Peyton Hyslop had a reputation - justified or not - of being low on bail and soft on crime.
"It's something we've been doing for the last 12 years," Hernando director of student services Jim Knight said of the prosecution of parents. "But it's just that they're now going to court with a different judge who will take action."
Perceived differences in county judges aside, the question comes up whether it's effective, or even appropriate, to respond to the most serious truancy of students by punishing their parents.
"It's effective for other parents to see, "Wow, I better wake up my child to take him to school, because I'm not going to jail for my son,"' said Barbara Smith, the school district's coordinator of student services. "The threat becomes more real. There's some teeth to the law that something really will happen."
School boards see truant students as potential dropouts. Law enforcement agencies see them as potential criminals.
"It's this early sign," said Ken Seeley, the president of the National Center for School Engagement, a Denver group that studies truancy, "this early red flag that kids are headed to really bad outcomes."
In the past 10 years, Seeley said, truancy has increased nationally two- to threefold.
Florida law is simple: All kids ages 6 to 16 have to go to school. A habitual truant is a student who has five unexcused absences in 30 days or 15 in 90. Only the parents of kids younger than 10 can face criminal charges.
In the 1999-2000 school year in Hernando, according to statistics from the Florida Department of Education, countywide truancy rates showed 5.9 percent of students in elementary school missing 21 or more days of school, 14.2 percent in middle school and 10.8 percent in high school. But in 2003-04, the latest school year for which figures are available, those numbers had increased to 8.8, 17.3 and 19.5. According to Hernando's Department of Student Services, there were 42 truancy case studies in all of 2004-05 - and already 70 this year.
"I have put more emphasis in tracking truancy," Smith said.
Steps before prosecution include parent-teacher conferences, student counseling, mentoring and tutoring, placement in a different class, attendance contracts, truancy intervention through a so-called Child Study Team, then a truancy case staffing - and only after that might the State Attorney's Office get involved.
"I wouldn't say we're looking into it more strongly than anything else," Assistant State Attorney Lisa Herndon said. "We are treating it like any other crime. We may see more of these cases now because they are investigating them more routinely" - they being local school administrators.
"If it's a viable charge, then we file it."
Federal No Child Left Behind legislation is pressuring school districts around the country to lower truancy rates. Jacksonville and Spokane, Wash., for example, have drop-in truancy centers, where police take kids and parents. Similar roundups are going on in Iowa, Virginia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, New York and Illinois.
Parents of chronic truants have been sent to jail in Michigan, Tennessee, Ohio and Maryland.
A judge in Citrus County sentenced a woman to almost six months in jail in 2003 for not getting her son to go to school for most of that school year. A different Citrus judge sentenced another woman to 48 hours of jail in 1999.
"The interest in a truancy case is obviously the welfare of the child," said Hyslop, the former county judge in Hernando, who's now a private attorney. "I think it could be better handled in a dependency hearing than in a criminal hearing. I think that would be more of a benefit to the child."
Hyslop's reputation for being soft wasn't always supported by actual, statistical evidence, but that was the reputation - that Hyslop, folksy and friendly, was loose and lenient on the bench.
"The reason we are here is not to make mom a criminal," he said this month. "The reason is to get the kid in school."
Scaglione, the judge who unseated Hyslop in 2004, didn't want to talk on the record about any comparisons.
"There are so many things that we try before we ever go to court," said Knight, the director of Hernando's student services. "It's the last step, and we don't like to do it, but there needs to be consequences."
Corpas had a nonjury trial. It was only the third truancy case in the past nine years that ended up in a trial, said Smith, the coordinator of student services. Lisa Chittaro, the prosecutor, did these kinds of cases when she worked in Ocala, and she plans on doing them here, too.
"You can't do this and deprive your son of the education he deserves," Scaglione told Corpas when he announced his sentence.
Smith said she had gotten four calls from parents since the Corpas case was in the newspaper. Knight said he had gotten two more. The callers wanted to know if they were going to get in trouble.
Chittaro was told of the woman in Maryland who got time in jail.
"Good," she said.
"Kids have a right to an education. The parents are supposed to be doing the best thing for their kids. What she's doing is not the best thing for the kid. What she's doing is breaking the law."
She's been checking on Corpas and her son. This story might not be over.
Michael Kruse can be reached at email@example.com or 352 848-1434.
[Last modified March 19, 2006, 19:04:03]
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