When students don't go to school, parents go to jail

More than 400 Baltimore parents cited this year in what some call a flawed process of getting students back to school

April 24, 2011|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Barbara Gaskins says she took her 15-year-old son to his bus stop every morning at 7:30, well in time for his 9 a.m. homeroom bell at Patterson High School. She obtained as many medical excuses as the doctor would allow when her son suffered from a series of stomach viruses. And she has taught her children that they have to "get an education to get somewhere in life."

But Gaskins was recently jailed for 10 days — one of the dozen parents of Baltimore City students to receive a sentence this year — after failing to send her child to school 103 of 130 days.

More than 400 parents have received notification this school year that they would face a District Court judge as a result of charges filed by the school system's Office of Attendance and Truancy.

Even more than a letter home from their students' teachers or principals, parents dread a letter from Alfred Barbour, the court liaison for the school system. He enforces the school system's philosophy that children younger than 16 — the state's compulsory age of attendance — missing exorbitant amounts of school is not only unacceptable but criminal.

"At the end of the rainbow is a referral to court," Barbour said. "Before that, many efforts and processes and steps have been done at the school level, and nothing has worked, everything has failed."

In cases that result in parents doing jail time, Barbour said, the school system is "dealing with the worst of the worse. And we have to show that we are not playing. This is the law."

Court appearance

On March 29, Gaskins was among the parents filing through the Baltimore City District Courthouse in Northwest Baltimore to defend themselves against the charge that they had knowingly and willingly failed to send their students to school.

"We don't want to send anyone to jail," Barbour said. "Sending them to jail can have a tremendous impact on the family, disrupting the family."

When she was sentenced to 10 days in jail, to be served five consecutive weekends, Gaskins said she was most concerned about who would care for her four children, all school-age.

"Of course, I'm scared: I've never been in trouble with the law — period," a teary-eyed Gaskins said in an interview after she received her sentence, which began that Friday. "We're a Christian family."

But it was the third time Gaskins had gone before District Judge Barbara B. Waxman since she was first cited in April last year.

"I made sure he was there," Gaskins said in the interview. "I did everything they asked me to do."

Gaskins' son told Waxman during his mother's hearing that he had been in school but wasn't marked present. He said that he was excelling in his science class and "had the knowledge" to prove it.

Waxman pointed out that between Feb. 11 and March 2, Gaskins' last trial date, he was marked absent every day. Between March 2 and the March 29 trial date, he had missed 10 days.

"I made a promise that I would increase it, and I did, right?" the teenager responded.

Ultimately, Waxman told Gaskins that the case has spiraled out of control for long enough.

"I told you I was willing to work with you, and I've tried to instill how important this is," Waxman said. "You have not taken this very seriously."

Attendance and truancy experts say that taking the step of jailing parents for their children's absenteeism is not always an effective tactic.

"It's really important to have a comprehensive approach to truancy," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national organization that analyzes attendance data and policies, including Maryland's.

The most recent Attendance Works analysis found that more than 80,000 students in Maryland are missing 20 or more days of school each year; some of the highest numbers are in Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

"You can use legal action to move change, but usually there are other issues," Chang said. "Courts are usually not the place to unpack those issues and barriers to support."

The school system pledged more tactics and support this school year after Baltimore noted a 7.5 percent truancy rate in 2010. That year, about 6,200 students were considered habitually truant, meaning that they were out at least 20 percent of the time.

The focus has increased efforts at the school and central office level, said Jonathan Brice, who oversees the Office of Truancy as the executive director for the school system's office of student support and safety. Schools have revved up efforts by making phone calls and home visits, sending letters home and even providing more incentives for students who attend school regularly.

Filing a statement of charges in court is the last resort, he said.

Small percentages

"We're dealing with less than 1 percent of students and parents, and certainly this is one of the toughest decisions we have," Brice said. "But it's critical that we get those parents' and young people's attention about the seriousness of being in school."

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