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Truants, parents targeted

March 13, 2006|by KAREN HANNA

WASHINGTON COUNTY

An effort to crack down on chronic truancy in Washington County Public Schools could send both parents and children to court.

The school system, Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice, Washington County State's Attorneyand Washington County Department of Social Services are teaming up to compel students and families to improve school attendance.

Ten chronically-truant students ages 12 to 15 have been identified for a court initiative that would declare them children in need of supervision, a label that would expose them to court oversight, said Carol Costello, coordinator of alternative programs and student services. At the same time, the children's parents could be charged, she said.

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"By the state, by what the state would say, we could easily double or triple that, if we went after the most-chronic attendance problems," Costello said.

Because the program will target only a few of the most-severe attendance problems, Costello said the initiative so far will carry no extra price tag.

According to the Maryland State Department of Education, children are classified as chronically truant if they have a history of missing 20 percent or more of a school term, such as a month or semester, Costello said.

With the child-in-need-supervision tag and legal steps against the parents, Department of Juvenile Services supervisor Scott Beal said students and their families could be court-ordered to undergo therapy, in-home counseling or substance abuse treatment. The children could face removal from the home or other legal trouble if they violate the court order, he said.

The Department of Social Services will be notified if the process reveals that families are facing other problems, Beal and Costello said.

"We tell the child, 'Look, you don't go to school, your parent goes to jail.' And the child goes, 'So what?' This way, we bring the child into the process," Assistant State's Attorney Steven C. Kessell said.

As of March 1, students identified for the initiative had missed between 30 and 70 days of school, Costello said.

"We look at parents as partners. We're partners in working towards their kids' success. The last thing we want to do is to get in this adversarial relationship, but when you've exhausted every available option, there must be some bottom line, and there must be some point where you say you must obey the law," Costello said.

While he said he did not know which students the school system has targeted, Beal, a case management supervisor, said he believes the students who are identified likely have had no previous problems with the law. If they had crossed paths with the police, they already would have been on probation, Beal said.

That doesn't mean the students aren't headed for trouble, he said.

"If you skip enough school, you're gonna find juvenile crime because you've got to occupy your time somehow," he said.

Robert "Bo" Myers, executive director of secondary school administration, said parent-control issues or other family problems often are behind students' absences from school.

"Parent-control issues, we've got that. The kid will say, 'I don't want to go to school,' and the parent will say, 'O.K., you don't have to," Myers said.

Last year, the school system took 19 cases of chronic truancy to court, Costello said. In 13 cases, the school system received a "favorable disposition" of fines or suspended sentences for the parents of the children involved. In one of those cases, the parent was sent to jail, she said.

In six cases, involving mostly older students, Costello said, the parents received no sentence.

Students and families targeted for the program will be contacted by the school system, and they will have the rest of the year to clean up their acts, Costello said. A June 28 court date is set for students and parents who can't, she said.

According to Costello, the system reported 86 chronically truant students to the state during the 2004-05 school year. Sixty-eight children missed at least 20 percent of school the previous year, Costello said.

"You don't have to be a mathematician to figure out that's a huge chunk of the instructional year, and that's what this is really about. You have to be in school to learn, and if a kid isn't in school, you can't teach them. You can't reach them," Costello said.

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