Chronic school no-shows can't escape court

The big woman with sad eyes tells the judge she doesn't know where her 16-year-old daughter is — the one who's supposed to be in high school and here in the Pinellas Criminal Justice Center, but isn't. The girl does drugs. She has a baby. ¶ The woman says when she last saw the baby, he smelled like sweat and cigarettes. "He looked high," she says. ¶ Her voice cracks. ¶ "I don't know what to do."

It's impossible to feel the full burden borne by public schools without sitting for a few hours in Courtroom 14.

Truancy court offers a window into the wider world of education, which is another way of saying it looks out on to the dark underbelly of everything. Bad parents and broken families and all the terrifying dysfunctions that roam the same terrain don't just stalk academics; they leave the remains on the classroom floor. No one in their right mind thinks it's fair that schools have to clean up the mess.

And yet, the grim reality of Judge Irene Sullivan's docket also suggests a harsh lesson for those who hope more outreach to parents is the answer.

"They just don't know the simplest of parenting skills," said assistant state attorney Barbara Jacobs, who has worked on truancy issues for more than a decade. "They probably had poor role models themselves."

One by one, stories rise from the wooden benches. Different faces. Same themes.

One mom says she had so much trouble waking her 15-year-old son, she set off a smoke detector by his head. He still didn't budge. Another says her 15-year-old son hangs out all night with "friends" who are 25.

"I drive around looking for this child. I've walked around when my car is broke down," she says. "I did as much as I could."

To be referred to truancy court, kids must have at least five unexcused absences within a month, or 10 within 90 days. Last year, Pinellas referred 212 students, out of 105,000 in the district.

They are a tiny minority. They're also the tip of the iceberg.

State records show that thousands of other Pinellas students teeter on the edge of truancy. School social workers, attendance specialists and "child study teams" save many of them. But there is no end to parents who don't know what to do.

Or to kids who will grow up just like them.

20 missed days

Donn Jester, 17, softly lands his palms on the podium, like a budget director addressing a city council. He looks Sullivan in the eye, tells her he has a stomach condition that flares for days.

"The abdominal pain," he says, "makes it hard sometimes to accomplish tasks." Donn, short and charming, is no stranger to truancy court. This time, he has racked up 20 missed days at Osceola High.

"There's millions of people who have this condition," Jacobs, the assistant state attorney, tells the judge. "I have a feeling this is just another little story he's conniving."

In court, Donn's transgressions rattle into the public record. But so does this: He wants to go to college. He plans to study computers.

In an ideal world, parents would guide Donn there. In this world, a judge has to.

Remedial childhood

Judge Sullivan is polite but to the point, a tough grandma in trendy glasses.

"This is a collaborative court, not an adversarial court," she says to start the day's hearings. "Not here to punish. We're just here to find out why, and put in some steps and some practices and some counseling and some programs to help turn this around."

Sullivan orders drug treatment and family therapy and lots of things that seem obvious: curfews, early. TVs, off. Alarm clocks, on. Sometimes, she orders kids out of their homes and into short-term shelters, where structure is imposed.

Sometimes, these remedies work. But many kids stay in the court system for months, ordered back until they turn a corner, find themselves in criminal court or, with parental permission, withdraw from school.

"I'm going to drop out anyways," says the boy too zonked for smoke detectors.

Last year, the boy missed 62 days at Dixie Hollins High. So far this year, he has missed 51. Sullivan asks if he'd show positive for marijuana if she had him tested.

Yes, he mumbles. She thanks him for his honesty and orders him into a shelter for five days.

Mom is court ordered, too — to shadow her son in his classes one day.

A compromise

A school district official recommends the shelter for Donn, too.

He wilts.

"Your honor, I really do not think a shelter stay is necessary," he says. "I'm promising you today, I will go to school."

Sullivan wavers, then compromises. She orders Donn's mom to take him to a shelter if he skips any school in the next two weeks. Donn, bold again, offers an amendment to the order that would allow his mom to take him to the shelter if he disobeys her in any way.

Jacobs all but rolls her eyes. "I think that's called grandstanding, judge."

Outside the courtroom, Mom wishes they still had boot camps.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

FAST FACTS

By the numbers

212 truancy petitions filed by Pinellas School District last year

17 of those cases closed successfully

22 closed
unsuccessfully

96 remained open (most of the rest were handled through a related program that brings a magistrate to 12 Pinellas middle schools)

6.2 percent of Pinellas middle school students missed 21 or more days in 2006-07 school year, according to most recent state data

12.4 percent of Pinellas high school students missed 21 or more days in 2006-07

Chronic school no-shows can't escape court 12/02/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 5, 2008 5:25pm]

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