In mock court, real help for students

UB law school runs program that tackles chronic truancy

February 18, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

His grandmother beside him, 11-year-old Daquan Knight sits at a round blue table in his school library, facing the judge who is flipping through the boy's academic records.

"It looks like, when he is in school, he's an active student," says Juvenile Master Julius Silvestri, presiding over today's session of truancy court. "He was out 16 days in one marking period."

"One week he was out of school because of the death of my daughter," replies the grandmother, Victoria Knight, referring to the boy's aunt. "That had a lot to do with him being late for school, too."

Scenes like this play out every Tuesday morning at Guilford Elementary/Middle, one of five city schools participating in a mock court program for truant students run by the University of Baltimore's law school.

As in an actual court, the judges are real. They volunteer to meet weekly with chronically absent or tardy children and their families, trying to pinpoint what's wrong. Law students, program coordinators and school staff are also at the table, to follow up after the judges leave for their day jobs.

Unlike an actual court, the truancy court is not an official governmental body. And unlike many other truancy court programs around the country, there are no sanctions. The judges, who have included Maryland first lady Catherine Curran O'Malley, are there to help.

Participation is voluntary. Families recommended by the schools receive an invitation on courthouse stationery. Students commit to attend truancy court every week for 10 weeks, with a parent coming at least a few times.

The truancy court is similar to the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center in that it links truant students and their families with social services. But while the center deals with the worst truancy cases, the court strives to intervene before problems escalate.

Sometimes, the fix is as simple as giving a family an alarm clock or instructing a parent to take a television out of a child's room. The truancy court has led to treatment for asthma and diagnosis of learning disabilities.

Directed by the law school's Center for Families, Children and the Courts, the program is designed for students who have missed five to 20 days of school. Often, though, school administrators send children who have missed more.

Among elementary school children, court organizers have found, the problems generally originate with a parent. By middle school, children are making their own choice to cut class.

Last month, the court launched its new semester at the Baltimore City Juvenile Justice Center, where Circuit Judge David W. Young explained the program to families. Some of them were angry to be there. One woman said that getting the invitation letter made her feel like a bad parent.

"I feel I am a damn good parent," she said. "I feel I shouldn't be here."

"The fact that you are here shows you are a great parent," Young replied.

At Guilford a few weeks later, Victoria Knight is telling Silvestri, the juvenile master, how her daughter was living with them until she died of cancer at age 31.

Now, Daquan is relying on his father to get a ride to school, but the father is driving five kids to different schools, resulting in Daquan's chronic lateness. The family is planning to move by the end of the month, at which point Daquan will leave Guilford - and end his participation in truancy court.

He vows to Silvestri to make up missed tests before then.

Last semester, about seven students from Guilford participated regularly in the truancy court. Now, there are more than two dozen, about half of them with a parent or relative.

The children and their families scatter at tables around the room, talking, coloring and reading. One by one, they are called to the round blue table, where each gets five to 10 minutes with the judge.

One mother comes with four children who have been chronically tardy because of a new custody arrangement in which they're with her and her former husband on alternating nights. In another case, a fifth-grade girl has been repeatedly suspended for fighting, and her mother is telling her to defend herself.

Eighth-grader Jakeya Howard, 14, is excelling on the school's National Academic League team, but she's regularly tardy and not doing well in her classes. She tells Silvestri that her classmates tease her when she gets good grades.

"You know what?" Silvestri says. "That's their problem."

At 9:15 a.m., an hour and a half into what's supposed to be an hourlong session, Silvestri has to leave. Program coordinator Patricia Schminke stays, along with a law student, a school social worker and a truancy court worker who runs a mentoring program.

When the truancy court was launched in 2005, it operated in five elementary and middle schools that fed into Patterson High. But two of those schools closed last summer. And in some cases, schools weren't putting in the effort to supply student records and send employees to sit in on the sessions.

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