I swear I don't know I escaped being criminalized in my youth...
-------from the Arizona Republic------
Students warned of charges that can stem from skipping school
Cathryn Creno -
Dec. 25, 2011 09:24 PM
The Arizona Republic
The excuses for missing dozens of days of school this year ranged
from insomnia to asthma to not liking the "drama" in high-school
But Judge Dan Dodge wasn't having any of it at a new special hearing he holds for truants and their parents once a month.
"Chronic truancy is a criminal offense. Do you want to start out your
life with a criminal record?" Dodge said as he stared down from the
bench at Gilbert's Highland Justice Court at a sleepy-eyed 15-year-old
Dobson High School student.The freshman said he has missed dozens of days of school this year
because he usually struggles to fall asleep until 3 a.m. He then has
trouble getting up for his 8 a.m. class. And Mom, typically asleep
herself at the hour school starts, is no help, the student said.
"I don't really care about school," he had said before walking into the courtroom. "I would rather stay up late and play music."
Dodge was unsympathetic, saying the problem could easy be solved with
fewer late-night jam sessions and a louder morning alarm clock. Or
maybe Mom should just pour a glass of water on his head every morning at
6 a.m., the judge said.
Dodge told the young insomniac to have no more unexcused absences
this year or he could lose his right to apply for an Arizona driver's
license until he turns 18.
On a recent afternoon, Dodge looked around a courtroom full of
accused truants, their parents and their guardians and told everyone to
shape up or face prosecution by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Parents in the room eyed each other with chagrin as Dodge told them
that they, along with their teens, could face Class 3 misdemeanor
charges -- meaning fines and possible jail sentences -- if they did not
get their kids to school on time or make arrangements for them to study
at home because of chronic illnesses.
"And if you want to drop out and ruin your life at age 16, that is
your prerogative. But before that, it is not your privilege," Dodge told
the students, who are not identified because The Arizona Republic
typically does not print the names of juveniles accused of crimes.
Dodge ordered the kids and parents to return to his courtroom in
March with report cards and attendance records. If things have improved
by then, charges will be dropped.
At least one student in the courtroom was already on her way to a new
life. Wearing a charter-school uniform, she told Dodge that she hated
the "drama" at her former district high school and had been in class
every day since she transferred.
Truancy court is a no-nonsense year-old partnership between the Mesa
Public Schools Safety and Security Department and East Valley justice of
the peace courts, including Dodge's.
Mesa, the largest school district in the state, has a long history of being the toughest on truants.
Most schools traditionally let attendance clerks and counselors deal
with kids who play hooky occasionally and report chronic truants to
local police. Peoria Unified School District in the West Valley has an
innovative on-campus program called "Sweeps" that requires kids who are
late or loitering around campus to spend at least one class period away
from other students explaining to a teacher why they were AWOL.
In contrast, Mesa employs nine uniformed, body-armor-wearing,
pepper-spray-carrying security officers who spend at least half of their
time tracking truants and their parents. The officers are not sworn
law-enforcement officials but have been trained to restrain young
offenders until police arrive.
The annual cost in salaries is about $140,000 for the anti-truancy
program, said Mesa schools security director Allen Moore, who believes
the expense is more than worth it.
Pathway to crime
While the district wants as many kids in school as possible -- it
gets nearly $5,000 a year in funding for each child enrolled and has
lost 9,000 students in the past decade -- it's even more important to
turn around truant kids before they get involved in crime, Moore said.
After performing normal school-security duties, the nine officers
patrol areas that truants like to frequent -- shopping malls,
electronics stores and restaurants with deals on breakfast -- in search
of kids who should be in a classroom.
While one ditch day here or there probably does not mean the start of
a criminal career, juvenile-crime experts say habitual truancy often is
the first step toward involvement with drugs, vandalism, burglaries and
"We get calls from the parks, from the malls ... sometimes the kids
have already been involved in burglaries," said Tim Pinsonneault,
security supervisor for Mesa Public Schools.
"Habitual truants like to hang out with each other," Mesa security
officer Nathan Wax said. "Kids all have cellphones. They text each other
and meet up at houses where parents aren't home."
In most cases, truancy problems are solved with a simple visit with the child and parents from a school security officer.
"We meet with parents and the student, we explain the state law to
them. We say our goal is not to cite them," Pinsonneault said. "But if
they don't correct the behavior, they are served by a process server and
they have to go to court. If they don't show up, a warrant is issued
for their arrest."
Moore said his officers have stumbled onto meth labs and dwellings
where the conditions were so uninhabitable that they called Mesa police
and the state's Child Protective Services.
But, he said, truancy is a middle-class problem, too.
"We have parents who want to take their kids out of school for a
cruise," he said. "That is not allowed. And some parents want to start
holiday break by going on vacation early. We don't call that vacation.
We call it truancy."
Tutoring, counseling and parenting classes are made available to kids
and parents who need them. But Moore said in many cases families just
need to be made aware of the law. He said in the last calendar year, his
officers have tracked down and given warnings to 1,184 truant
junior-high and high-school students and 1,972 parents of truant
elementary-schoolers. All but 606 middle- and high-school students and
234 elementary-school students returned to school with no additional
action, he said. Those who did not heed the security officers' warnings
were summoned to truancy hearings in a court like Dodge's.
Pinsonneault said that before last year, Mesa schools, like most
other districts in the county, referred its habitual truants to the
county's Juvenile Probation Department. The problem, he said, was that
some parents failed to take the juvenile citations seriously.
"Bringing everyone to a justice court gives the process more teeth," he said.
Of the 79 chronic truants who appeared in Dodge's court last spring,
only 12 still have charges pending, Moore said. The rest "have corrected
their behavior and are attending school successfully," he said.
"It amazed me what a difference a little bit of the fear of the law would make," Dodge said.
Arizona's truancy law
Arizona law requires students to attend a public, private or home school until they turn 16 or finish 10th grade.
Students must be present 90 percent of the time -- 162 days of a
180-day school year -- to get a passing grade and credit in a class.
Kids are considered chronically truant after they miss 18 days of school, even if some of the days were excused absences.
Schools can issue citations that refer students to court or truancy-diversion programs after five unexcused absences.
Kids who fail to return to school after getting warnings face
penalties ranging from fines to loss of eligibility for an Arizona
driver's license until age 18.
Parents who fail to get their kids back to school can face fines or, in extreme cases, jail time.
Sources: Mesa Public Schools, Highland Justice Court, Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department