PA Pols Want to Stop Locking Up Parents of Truant Students

"That’s just going to make the situation worse."

Photo | It's Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo | It’s Our City via Flickr / Creative Commons

Is pressing charges against the parent of a habitually truant student a good idea?

State Sen. Vincent Hughes has a simple three-word answer: “Oh hell no.”

Hughes and a number of Democratic and Republican state senators are trying to remove that option from the table with a Senate bill that could overhaul the way schools address truancy across Pennsylvania.

Truancy has been a hot topic in the city this week, thanks in large part to a very public spat between the School District of Philadelphia and the District Attorney’s Office.

It started Monday, during an exhaustive City Council hearing on youth gun violence. First Assistant District Attorney George Mosee testified that on any given day, nearly 50 percent of public school students in the city are truant.

Karyn Lynch, the School District’s chief student support officer, immediately pushed back. Mosee’s math, she testified, was wrong. Lynch said the district’s average daily attendance is 91.5 percent.

But the dispute was about more than just numbers. The two agencies are at odds over an anti-truancy initiative that’s been implemented in dozens of charter schools by District Attorney Seth Williams.

The program calls for reckless endangerment charges to be filed against a parent or guardian if they ignore multiple warnings from the D.A.’s Office to meet with school officials after their child has been truant at least 10 times in a given marking period.

Williams wants traditional public schools in the School District to participate in the program, too. Both sides are arguing about whether federal education laws allow the district to share student-specific attendance information with the D.A.’s Office.

According to Hughes, there’s no need for an argument — the practice of going after parents just needs to be dropped altogether.

“It seems to me a different path needs to be taken that helps children and their families,” he said. “If you start threatening or, in fact, incarcerating parents because their kids are not going to school, that’s just going to make the situation worse. I can guarantee you that.”

Enter Senate Bill 359, which was co-sponsored by state Sen. Judy Schwank, a Democrat from Berks County, and Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from Bucks and Montgomery Counties, in response to the June 2014 death of Eileen DiNino.

DiNino was a mother of seven from Reading who was arrested and sentenced to two days in jail after reportedly failing to pay $2,000 in fines that she’d been saddled with because her kids were regularly truant. She suffered from high blood pressure and complained of chest pains while behind bars, but didn’t receive medical attention, according to a wrongful death lawsuit filed by her family. She died in jail.

Schwank said DiNino had health and financial problems; fining and jailing her clearly didn’t help her situation.

The Senate bill — along with a similar one in the state House — will require schools across the state to establish individualized truancy plans the first time a student is truant.

“The school has to schedule a conference with the parents and sit down and create a plan,” Schwank said. “Social services might have to be brought in. There are usually other issues going on.”

And the option of jailing parents, Schwank said, “will be taken off the table.”

But what does that mean for the D.A.’s Office’s initiative, which Williams said is based on a model that prosecutors in San Francisco used to great success a decade ago?

Greg Rowe, Williams’ legislative chief, said yesterday that the bill wouldn’t impact the D.A.’s anti-truancy program.

The bill, after all, would amend the state Public School Code — not the Crimes Code.

“Much of the bill just speaks to the process that the schools would undertake when dealing with the chronically truant,” Rowe said.

Bottom line: This won’t be the last that you’ll hear about truancy.

When told about Rowe’s response, Sen. Hughes said, “Maybe we need to come up with another bill that says what [the D.A.’s Office] is doing is illegal.”

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