- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
A mother arrived more than an hour late to court this week for her trial on a truancy charge for not sending her son to school, and a judge was not swayed by her accounts of doctor’s appointments, a death in the family and allegations of bullying.
“I’m not going to listen to excuses,” St. Mary’s Circuit Judge Michael J. Stamm said, after he earlier had issued a bench warrant for the woman’s arrest.
A conviction on the truancy charge carries a maximum penalty of 10 days in jail for a single day’s absence, or up to 30 days in custody for a series of absences. But the woman was spared any jail time and left the courtroom after her promise to have her son back in school later this year for a second shot at first grade.
“I’m trying,” she earlier told the judge.
St. Mary’s public schools try to work with parents, whose children are missing school for unauthorized reasons, through a series of contacts with the parents, followed, if necessary, by teaming up with other public agencies to review ongoing problems. As a last resort, cases are referred for prosecution by the state’s attorney’s office.
Children at home for lengthy periods due to illness can be assisted by programs that will send teachers to the home, according to Charles Ridgell, director of student services, but he said that doesn’t apply to parents who say getting their child ready for school each morning is “not convenient,” or that “I can’t get them up out of bed.”
Ridgell said he understands that can be a difficult responsibility. “Sometimes, parents work at night,” he said, “and they’re getting home at the time that the kids should be getting up.”
The interagency approach — after the school system’s letters, phone calls, conferences and home visits with the parents have not resolved an issue — offer a broader perspective on “the bigger picture” of what’s going on within a family, Ridgell said.
As many as 10 families a month can be involved in the initial “school-level interventions,” after a student has five or more unexcused absences, Ridgell said, and the cases of “only a few students” eventually need to be referred to the state’s attorney’s office for prosecution.
“Most of them get worked out, especially with all the agencies working to help them,” he said, which include representatives from social services, juvenile services, the county’s health department, state’s attorney’s office, a Southern Maryland Community Network and Elizabeth White, the public schools’ interagency liaison.
“The parents see how much the schools are willing to support them,” White said, “and how much they want their children to come to school.”
Ridgell noted that Stamm’s experience as a former school teacher is part of what makes him well suited to resolve the cases.
During this week’s brief hearing for the mother who came to court, White said the woman’s son “completely missed most of first grade” during the school year now coming to a close.
St. Mary’s Assistant State’s Attorney John Pleisse told the mother, “If your child doesn’t go to school, this case will be brought back. I will file new charges.”