CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. — Just this school year alone –from Aug. 17, 2015, to April 4, 2016 — Jefferson County Schools has had 203 parents in court facing truancy criminal charges.
According to Dr. Sheri Hoff, Jefferson County Board of Education director of attendance and alternative education, JCS has had 342 overall court appearances this year including cases that had carried over from the previous year and cases that have been dismissed because of improved attendance.
In the 2014-15 school year, 284 Jefferson County School parents went to court and there were 437 court appearances overall.
Dr. Veronique Walker, Berkeley County Board of Education director of diversity and student support services, said as of Tuesday, Berkeley County Schools has filed 365 criminal complaints for truancy for the 2015-16 school year. In the 2014-15 school year, 315 criminal complaints were filed in Berkeley County.
According to state law, parents received a state letter sent by the school system’s attendance director’s office informing them to contact the school when their child has missed three unexcused days.
At five unexcused absences another letter is sent from the attendance director’s office as well as the school where the child has been absent.
Hoff said at seven days, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney’s office sends a letter stating the parents are at a risk of criminal charges.
“It’s just one more step to try to get the kid in school and help parents understand it’s important. And many times that’s what it takes, to get the parents’ attention to get that letter from the prosecuting attorney’s office,” Hoff said.
“Our goal isn’t to threaten; we want to help parents understand and we just want the kids in school, but unfortunately the state letters that I send are threatening. It’s a state letter, I have no control over the words they use. I just plug the child’s number in and it spits the letter out.” Hoff added.
Walker said the process for attendance across the state is essentially the same, but Berkeley County Schools is different from Jefferson County in that it presently does not send a seven-day letter from the prosecuting attorney.
Then, at 10 unexcused absences, a parent faces criminal charges.
“An unexcused absence means there has been no documentation sent in for an absence,” Hoff said.
“And the state has a list of acceptable reasons, but an administrator when talking with the parent can often determine what an appropriate reason is,” Hoff added.
There is a state-regulated code system in place in order to determine what an “excused absence is.” Some examples of excused absences include death in the family, medical appointment, military, illness verified by parent or physician and a legal obligation.
Hoff said the state does not define family vacations as a viable reason to miss school. Out of school suspensions also count for unexcused absences too.
“By code, it says the parent will be charged with truancy once they have ten days out of school suspension. So your child can turn notes in and never miss school and then get in a fight and be suspended for 10 days and you feasibly could end up in court for truancy,” Hoff said.
The general truancy code is 18-8-1 states any parent of a child who misses 10 or more days of school, unexcused, will face truancy criminal charges.
Hoff said for a parent’s first offense, they are charged with a criminal misdemeanor and are assessed a fine of no less than $50 and no more than $100, plus court costs. Judges also have the option of sending parents to school with a child, but Hoff said this is not recommended because it disrupts the school day for not only that child, but the other students in the school. The case can also be continued for 60 days to see if the child’s attendance improves, but this is up to the discrepancy of the judge.
The parent has the right to request a bench trial or to enter a plea.
On a parent’s second offense, he or she faces at least five or no more than 20 days in jail on each count. Hoff said by the state law she has the ability to charge every single day missed as a separate count which could result in a longer jail time, but she doesn’t like to do that.
“I have one or two that have missed multiple numbers, say they have missed 15 days, I could file 15 complaints. But that is kind of ridiculous and overkill. It’s a burden on the court system and it’s being very negative and punitive toward the parent when what you want is to get the parent to get the kid to school, and by this you are creating a negative environment,” Hoff said.
Hoff said that keeping students in school and parents out of jail is a combined effort between her office, the schools and communication from the parents.
“We are very diligent in sending our letters out from this office. The schools do a great job at getting their five-day letters out,” Hoff said.
“The administrator at the school level will call parents and schedule meetings after five unexcused days. Many parents will blow them off, but many more parents are responsive and say, ‘I know, this is what we are going through. Let me get you the documentation or they will know ahead of time and say, ‘Johnny is going to have surgery, can we put homebound in effect to get him through.” So, after years of doing this we’ve kind of got the parents in the trenches of what works and how we can help them if they communicate with us, and that’s the goal,” Hoff added.
Hoff, who has worked in her position for over 10 years, said the numbers are improving slowly but surely.
“It’s getting much better. Out of the 55 counties in the state, Jefferson County had the worst attendance when I started here. We really struggled with getting kids in school. Now, there are many factors, the law changed, we took a different tactic of ‘we are going to help you but you, have to meet us halfway’ or we will implement the law,”
-Staff writer Katiann Marshall can be reached at 304-263-8931, ext. 182, or at Twitter.com/KmarshallJN.
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