Parents of truant students called to court in Contra Costa County

on October 21, 2015

Six families with elementary and middle school-aged children sat in the gallery of Department 5 at the Contra Costa County Courthouse. They were called to appear at 10 a.m. Judge Rebecca Hardie wouldn’t emerge for another half hour. First, the adults were given a lesson about the impact of poor student attendance.

“There is no other court where the prosecutor gives you a PowerPoint presentation,” Hardie said.

It made sense this time, when Hardie presided over Contra Costa County’s first parent truancy court date on Friday, October 16.

The defendants were all there for the same reason: their children had missed a lot of school, and this was a final attempt to remedy this issue.

A student is considered truant if he or she is absent or more than 30 minutes tardy without a valid excuse. Contra Costa County has the highest truancy rate in the Bay Area, according to a state attorney general’s report on student attendance.

Before getting to a courtroom, the families of truant students are contacted about the attendance issue and asked to participate in meetings and intervention programs. If those meetings fail, the student can be sent before a judge.

Deputy District Attorney Laura Delehunt said officials decided this wasn’t the best way to deal with elementary- and middle school-aged students who couldn’t necessarily get themselves to school.

“In cases where the fault is the parent, we didn’t really have a way to address those cases,” Delehunt said. “You don’t want to have a 6-year-old write an essay on missing school.”

The families who walked through the doors of Department 5 had children with a history of absences. Delehunt said all of the students involved with these cases had a history of more than 10 unexcused absences.

But the students weren’t on trial. Parents or guardians were being charged with an infraction for not getting their children to school.

Facing the families in the courtroom, Delehunt said all of these cases could have been filed as misdemeanors, which could cost defendants up to $1,000 in fines or jail time. But this court isn’t solely interested in disciplining the families or students.

The infraction comes with $180 in fines and fees. If the parents or guardians plead guilty and agree to work with the court and get their child to school, then the fine and charge is dropped. Parents may also be required to work with community organizations, which had a representative at the first court date.

“The goal is not to punish but to get these kids to school,” Hardie said to a courtroom of more than 20 people before calling a short recess.

If the student’s attendance doesn’t improve or it gets worse, then the parents or guardians may be charged with a misdemeanor.

During a break in the proceedings, families spoke with Delehunt and representatives from the Lincoln Child Center, Community Options for Families and Youth, Counseling Options and Parent Education and county behavioral mental health, trying to match families with these organizations’ services.

According to a 2012 report called The Importance of Being in School, elementary school students who are frequently or chronically absent are more likely to fall behind academically and socially.

Eighty-three percent of students who miss at least 10 percent of a school year in kindergarten and first grade will have fallen behind in reading by the third grade, and those students are four times more likely to drop out than their peers, according to the state attorney general’s report In School + On Track 2015.

Delehunt said people who drop out of high school are often those seen in the criminal justice system.

“If you can prevent someone from committing a crime, you preventing someone from being a victim of crime to begin with,” Delehunt said. “You don’t have all the suffering that goes along with that…”

Delehunt and other county officials started putting together this new court about two years ago. They looked to Alameda County’s parent truancy court, which has been hearing cases for 11 years, as the model.

Teresa Drenick, Alameda County assistant district attorney, developed the Alameda court and has worked there since the beginning. Drenick said that court sees about 100 parents every year and roughly 90 percent of those parents’ students return to regular attendance.

Despite the court’s success rate, Drenick said there isn’t a “magic bullet” to solving student attendance issues, but bringing the parents to court does help them realize that missing school is a problem.

“I mean this is serious business,” she said. “You walk into a courtroom that Monday through Thursday hears murder cases, and here you are on Friday and you think all I’m doing is not getting my kid to school.”

Contra Costa’s parent truancy court is scheduled to meet twice a month and hear about 10 cases. Delehunt said the court would see more cases if there was a need for it.

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