A small team of Howard County legislators, litigators and school system officials will work in the coming weeks to draft a bill that would create the county's first truancy court that places harsher penalties on students.
"Current truancy laws only impose [criminal] penalties on parents," said Roger Plunkett, the business, community, government relations officer for the school system, and one of the originators of the concept. "The problem, however, rests with the students. ... It would be a proactive measure."
The Howard County Board of Education unanimously approved the idea Thursday night and will await a draft of the bill that will be shared with the county's delegation to Annapolis in January, and then with the General Assembly.
Board members were told that truant students could face consequences that include community service, counseling, substance abuse evaluation and treatment, mental health evaluation and treatment, a curfew and loss of driving privileges.
The Howard County truancy court would be based on a model used in Dorchester, Somerset, Wicomico and Worcester counties. However, unlike that model, which applies only to students 15 and younger, the Howard County court would apply to students 12 and older.
"Turning 16 does not give you a right to get cavalier," said Mark Blom, the board's attorney and one of the people behind the concept.
The court would initially operate twice a week and start at 3 p.m., Blom said.
"We want to send the message of being in school," he said. "I am sure we will not start with filing all the petitions at once. We would work into this slowly."
Blom also said the court would be a last resort.
"There would be interventions by staff before a child was taken to court," he said. "It would take about 10 or 11 unexcused absences."
In order for the court to be established by the 2007-2008 school year, the school board will have to approve a draft of proposed legislation at its Jan. 11 meeting. The legislation would be submitted to Howard County's General Assembly delegation.
The concept already has the support of Del. Elizabeth Bobo, said Plunkett.
Board members and high-ranking school officials said they support the concept.
Larry Cohen, a board member, said he favored placing the responsibility with the students.
"Many times the kid refuses to go to school," said the retired school administrator. "When a kid gets 13, 14 years old, you cannot drag them out."
But many had questions about the logistics involved.
"I think the concept is excellent," said board member Sandra H. French. "But I want to see how this dovetails with the attendance policy. Does it automatically kick in?"
Blom and Plunkett assured the board that they would be better informed in coming weeks.
Pam Blackwell, director of student services and another person behind the concept, said the court is a step in the right direction.
"We do not look at it as punitive," Blackwell said. "The end result will be more students in school."