Student truancy can spell $1,000 fine, jail for parents

It stands out as one of the toughest truancy penalties among metro Atlanta school districts. But Atlanta has a troubling truancy problem. Almost 44 percent of high school students missed 10 or more days of school last year, up from 40 percent in 2009-10, according to district data. That’s compared with about 25 percent in Fulton County.

Under the ordinance, if a student is caught unsupervised on a school day more than once, the parent can be fined, put in jail or sentenced to community service. Each additional absence can carry the same fine, and the same punishment.

The 2-year-old rule has seldom been enforced until now, said Atlanta City Council President Ceasar Mitchell, who helped create the ordinance. Mitchell said the goal is to get the attention of parents, to educate them about the importance of good attendance and to help connect them with social programs to ensure their children are regularly going to school.

But critics say the approach is flawed and could cause more worry for families already in distress.

“Given the crisis we’re facing in terms of truancy, we could haul droves of parents into court,” Mitchell said. “That is not our objective.”

Research shows that students with better attendance are more likely to earn a high school diploma. But unexcused school absences are a persistent problem in metro Atlanta and across the state despite an array of interventions and deterrence programs.

In Cobb, 8 percent to 10 percent of students log more than 15 absences each school year. In Fulton, almost 25 percent of high school students missed 10 or more days. So far this year, about 8 percent of Gwinnett’s high school students have logged 10 or more absences, both excused and unexcused, according to a school spokesman. DeKalb County, Powder Springs and Kennesaw have ordinances similar to what’s in Atlanta, according to school and county officials.

There’s also punishments built into state law. Georgia students with 10 or more unexcused absences can lose their driver’s license. A query by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found students in virtually every county had their licenses yanked because of missed days. Gwinnett, the state’s largest school system, had the most absence-related license suspensions in 2010, with 2,269 out of a statewide total of 12,974.

After five unexcused absences, a parent can be fined up to $100 and sentenced to 30 days in jail or community service, according to state law. The most severe cases are referred to Juvenile Court.

In Cobb, the district has seen some declines in truancy by putting more emphasis on intervention, said Paul Pursell, truancy coordinator for the school district. After seven absences, parents meet with a school-level truancy panel that tries to determine what’s driving the poor attendance, Pursell said. Court referrals are a last resort, but are made in hundreds of cases each school year.

“We see a lot of families that have relocated from other places. That’s an emerging trend,” he said. “When they get here, they have no support system. If transportation is lacking, there is no one to call. If they run into financial dire straits, there is no one to turn to.”

APS has a truancy center in which police officers bring children found loitering during the school day. There, social workers try to find out why the student isn’t in school. Social workers suggest programs to help solve problems at home that may be keeping students from the classroom.

Denise Revels, coordinator of social work services for APS, said absentee students may be caring for a sick family member or have children of their own and no access to day care. She sees the threat of a $1,000 fine as one more approach to solving the truancy problem.

“It’s an inner-city school district, so truancy is a huge challenge,” she said. “But if you teach a child to go to school every day for life, then they will take those same skills into employment and adulthood.”

Three high school zones — Douglass, Jackson and Washington — will serve as pilot sites for the enforcement. Last month, parents of students with five or more unexcused absences who attend schools in these areas were invited to a meeting and notified of plans to enforce the law. Revels said attendance has already improved since the meetings.

But some Atlanta parents feel the fine is too steep, especially in this economy.

Bobby Bell, whose children attend Washington High, said it could be a good deterrent but should be enforced with common sense.

“It depends on the situation that causes truancy,” he said.

City Council members next year will vote on a measure that would alter the ordinance to give judges more discretion over what to do in truancy cases, Mitchell said.

Jessica Pennington, executive director of the Georgia Truancy Intervention Project, a group that works with students in Atlanta and Fulton County, said she does not think the program could hurt families instead of helping them.

“What’s going on in these families are layers and layers of things that needs to be addressed,” she said. “Fining and locking up parents is not the most effective approach.”