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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

Barbour said cases like Gaskins' are rare. No parents were sentenced to jail last year, and about three were the year before that.

About 402 parents have been cited this school year, 407 in the 2010 school year, and 375 in 2009. Charges are filed against parents after a school notes that a student has 15 or more days of unexcused absences. The district, usually Barbour and a witness from the school, have to prove that the truancy is the parents' fault.

Barbour said that usually when the school system files charges against parents, 14 percent of cases improve, and after parents show up for their first court appearance, about 43 percent improve their attendance.

Second and third appearances are usually egregious enough that no excuse is acceptable, he said.

"Literally hundreds and hundreds of excuses are given at that point," he said. "Every story has two sides to it, and whatever issue they can dream up — every one of those issues can be addressed."

Barbour said that not all cases are as clear-cut as Gaskins'.

"Sometimes it's our fight alone, and I'm against lawyers who are making $400 to $500 for those few minutes," Barbour said. "And I've had judges on the bench who say, 'I don't believe in sending moms to jail for something the child won't do.' "

Fareed Nassor Hayat, a defense attorney with the People's Law Firm, agrees with those judges.

Hayat, a Los Angeles teacher-turned-Baltimore attorney, defended his first truancy case against the school system March 29. Hayat argued against allowing any evidence — not even the number of days allegedly missed — to be introduced in his client's case, which was dismissed.

He said that the school system often is not challenged on the fact that Barbour doesn't have firsthand knowledge of the absences and therefore shouldn't be able to testify about them.

"I think the school system kind of abuses its power, where they come in and muscle people into pleading guilty," he said. "I have a moral issue with how they're criminalizing parents who aren't really criminals at all — and it doesn't even fix the problem."

Barbour, who has been with the school system's truancy office for seven years and doing the court work for three, said he understands the objections. But he keeps in mind the thousands of children, especially the younger ones, who fall through the cracks. He has about 100 open cases left this school year.

"I often think that I have the worst job in Baltimore City; nobody likes me," he said. "But the reason I do this is because I have a great fondness of children and I believe they are our future. I'm just trying to save as many as I can."

erica.green@baltsun.com

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