9 parents face trial on truancy charges

Baltimore crackdown could bring fines, jail, loss of child custody

January 25, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

Canton Middle School Principal Craig Spilman says the law on truancy is clear and simple: If parents don't get their children to school consistently, they face fines, jail time and a possible loss of custody.

But Spilman says nine parents in his Baltimore school just don't get it. He has explained the law to them time and again. He had the Southeastern District police commander meet with them. In November, Spilman had these parents summoned to District Court before Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey for a hearing and scare-tactic warning.

But still, Spilman says, the children of these nine parents skip school -- missing days, weeks and even months as if it were no big deal. Some of the children haven't been in school more than a few days this year. One boy missed 100 of last year's 180 school days.

Today, at 2 p.m. in Cooksey's courtroom, the parents are to face what some observers say will be the first Baltimore truancy trial in decades.

"These nine parents have gone through the whole process with us about trying to get their children back into school regularly," Spilman said last week. "There's nothing left to do for them but this. They don't get their children to school, and that's against the law."

The parents scheduled to appear could be fined $500 and sentenced to to 30 days in jail. If that doesn't correct their children's attendance, the court could begin proceedings to remove the children from their homes.

The trial is a rarity in a city where thousands of children skip school each day. Principals often don't report truant children to police, and police and courts long ago stopped pursuing truants' parents to enforce the law.

"This is thinking out of the box," said Lt. Carmine Baratta, commander of Southeastern District's community outreach program. "It's an unusual partnership to see if we can solve a huge quality-of-life issue in the city."

Spilman says the trial culminates nearly a year of collaborative work by his school, police and justice system officials to crack down on truancy at his school. That work has improved attendance rates -- and by extension, improved academic performance -- at Canton.

"We were at 91.2 percent attendance last fall, up from 88.4 [percent] a year ago," Spilman said. "What we're doing is working -- slowly, but it's working."

Spilman said the school identified 40 of its most hard-core truants -- youngsters with horrible attendance records for a year or longer. Staff members had the parents meet at the school with the Southeastern District police commander. That got 22 of the children to show up more regularly.

In November, the parents of the 18 remaining truants were summoned to District Court, where they were told what lay ahead if they didn't correct their children's attendance. That got another nine children to show up consistently.

The remaining nine, Spilman said, are parents who have no control over their children, don't think missing 25, 50 or 60 days a year is a big deal or don't value education.

"Some of the excuses we hear from these parents are astounding," Spilman said. "Some of them tell us it's our responsibility to make sure their children are in school, or tell us that we shouldn't worry about it. We can only hope this last resort will change their behavior."

But some truants and parents at Canton defy the stereotype of the noncaring, irresponsible guardian and the lazy or criminal-minded child. They illustrate how complex an issue truancy can be.

Ardelia Green, whose 12-year-old daughter Denetria missed nearly one day a week last year, said school seemed to force her to make a choice between her daughter's education and the health of her ailing mother, who hasn't walked in 10 years and needs round-the-clock attention. Denetria was often the only one available to care for her grandmother.

"It's hard choosing between your child and your mother," Green said. "But I have to work to support us, and I didn't have money to pay someone else to be here with her. I blame myself, but there wasn't much else I could do. My kids had to take turns staying home with her.

"A lot of days, Denetria was the only one who could watch her," Green said. "I knew something had to change, but I didn't know how else to deal with it."

Green said she thought of calling the school to ask for help, but was embarrassed and unsure what school officials could do to help.

"It's not the school's problem, and it's not really their business," Green said. "I have some pride. I needed to work this out myself."

Green was among the 18 Canton parents hauled into court in November. She said the hearing scared her -- and more important, made her set different priorities.

She scrapes together $15 or $20 a day to pay cousins or friends to watch her mother. When she can't find anyone, she takes off work -- and loses money. Denetria has missed a few days since the hearing, and Ardelia Green is not among the parents on trial today.

"We're doing much better, much better," Green said. "She's going, and she's doing well."

"I do value my children's education," she said. "So they will be in school until they graduate."

Spilman said social problems can be found among most of the truants in his school, but that's no excuse.

"You have to come to school, period," he said. "That's what we have to get across to these parents."

Pub Date: 1/25/99

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