Cracking down on truants

School district will issue court summonses starting this fall for constantly absent students and their parents

By: Lea Kahn
   School district officials have begun to crack down on students who play hooky — and they have vowed to come down even harder on the truants and their families starting in September.
   State law requires children age 6 to 16 to attend school. Joseph Thompson, the school district’s attendance coordinator/truant officer, said the majority of local students comply, but many who do not.
   While students may have excused absences because of illness, some students have racked up 30 or 35 unexcused absences, Mr. Thompson said. In many cases, the parents know the child is not in school but they condone the conduct, he said.
   At present, Mr. Thompson contacts the parents of children who have excessive numbers of unexcused absences. He writes to the parents and suggests that they meet with him to discuss the situation. Generally, the child’s attendance record improves, he said.
   But next year, starting with a child’s 10th unexcused absence, Mr. Thompson plans a more aggressive approach. He still will write to the parents but if the situation does not improve, he may issue a summons requiring them to appear in Lawrence Township Municipal Court.
   Starting in the fall, student attendance records will be forwarded to Mr. Thompson’s office every two weeks for review. Each school had been responsible for keeping tabs on its students’ attendance records and spotting excessive absences.
   “For the past two years, I have been feeling out the procedures of the municipal court, how things are run and just how the court would respond (to truancy complaints). The court has been excellent and court officials have been great to work with,” he said.
   Truancy is a social issue that crosses every socio-economic and racial line, Mr. Thompson said. It does not matter whether the parents are high school graduates or hold graduate school degrees — it’s a problem, he said.
   “One of the problems is that truancy laws are lax. The punishment is minimal — a $25 fine for the first offense and up to $100 for the second offense. There is no mandatory jail term. Our laws have no teeth to them,” he said.
   Other states impose harsher penalties on the parents, he said. After the 12th unexcused absence, Mississippi authorities impose a maximum fine of $1,000 and up to one year in jail. Indiana ties the attendance record to the student’s eligibility for a driver’s license.
   The Lawrence school district has targeted the parents because they are responsible for getting their children to school, Mr. Thompson said. It is unfortunate that parents let their children stay home if they are not sick just because the child doesn’t like the teacher or the class, he said.
   “One of the biggest things we run up against is the parent. They say, ‘I’m the parent and they don’t have to go to school.’ They claim it is an authorized absence. The parents give the child permission to stay home, but the state and the school board don’t recognize that,” he said.
   Parents may remove their children from school for several weeks to take a family vacation, he said. Sometimes, a stay-at-home parent may want to keep the child at home because he or she misses the child’s company, he said.
   By allowing that to happen, the parents are giving the children a set of rules they will follow all of their lives, Mr. Thompson said. The children learn that their personal desires supersede the law, he said.
   “We are not out to prosecute parents, but we want to get them to understand the situation.” He said there are 4,000 students in the district and “if I have to file 800 court cases, then that is what I will do.”
   Most parents send their children to school after they receive a letter for excessive unexcused absences. Parents who ignore the letter are the ones who end up in court, Mr. Thompson said.
   There are more reasons to make sure that children are in school than merely meeting attendance laws, he said. Students who are not in school are more likely to get into trouble, he said. Last year, three Lawrence students who were truant broke into a house and were caught by police.
   Nationwide studies have shown that enforcement of school attendance laws results in a decline in crime, Mr. Thompson said. In Englewood, Calif., police reported a 32-percent drop in daytime burglaries and a 36-percent decline in strong-arm robberies after school attendance laws were enforced, he said.