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7-year-old's truancy lands mother in jail

On many occasions this past school year, Johanna Smalley failed to get her 7-year-old daughter to class on time. Sometimes, the girl didn't make it to her desk at all.

As a result, Mrs. Smalley now finds herself in the grown-up version of detention hall: the Citrus County Jail.

Mrs. Smalley and her husband, Ronnie, are stunned. They know they ran afoul of the law. But jail?

Unless County Judge Mark Yerman changes his mind, Mrs. Smalley will remain behind bars until her court date July 17.

"I don't know what I'm going to do!" said Ronnie Smalley, who now is trying to work and care for the couple's three children, ages 4, 5 and 7. "I don't understand what's going on."

What's going on, it seems, is that Mrs. Smalley did a poor job of following orders from the schools and the court.

The Smalleys live on U.S. 41, just north of the Hernando County line. Ronnie Smalley is an auto mechanic who leaves for work at 7 a.m., taking the couple's only car.

Mrs. Smalley cares for the children and was responsible for getting her daughter, 7-year-old Tawny Christine Straight, to Floral City Elementary School, where the girl was in first grade.

The mother failed to do that, officials said. There was a pattern of repeated absences and tardy appearances, although specific details were not listed in Mrs. Smalley's court file.

Ronnie Smalley says his wife had an excuse. The family lives four blocks from the bus stop. Mrs. Smalley had to walk that distance, along busy U.S. 41, with all three children in tow. As a result, Tawny sometimes missed the bus, and a neighbor would have to drive her to school.

"It ain't like we kept the child out of school," he said.

Besides, although Tawny is his stepdaughter, Smalley still says the burden shouldn't fall just on his wife. "It's just as much my responsibility as it is hers," he said.

State law requires parents to make sure their children attend school regularly, except in exceptional circumstances. It also requires the school system to investigate habitual truants and, in bad cases, to consult the state attorney's office for possible prosecution.

On May 8, Mrs. Smalley pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge related to the attendance problems. Judge Yerman put her on probation for six months, told her to attend parenting classes, and ordered her to pay $162.75 in court costs and fines.

And one more thing: Make sure Tawny gets to school.

Mrs. Smalley didn't do so.

Mrs. Smalley's probation officer said Tawny had unexcused absences or tardy appearances on May 9, 11, 15, 16, 17 and 19. School ended June 9.

According to Smalley, his wife and the children were living in Brooksville at the time because the couple had separated. A friend drove Tawny the 26 miles to school.

The woman also failed to pay any of her fine and owed $40 for the cost of probation services.

In early June, Yerman issued a warrant for her arrest for violating probation. Mrs. Smalley learned of the warrant and went to jail Thursday morning. She hoped to be released on bail until her court date.

But the judge, as he does on many violation of probation cases, ordered her held without bail. He repeated that order Friday morning at Mrs. Smalley's first appearance hearing.

Ronnie Smalley doesn't believe the punishment fits the crime. "I think it sucks. You take the mother of three and put her in jail? To keep her away from her kids isn't doing any good. First offense, in her whole life? It ain't like she went out and robbed a bank.

"I have always respected the law," said Smalley, who must pay a lawyer $300 to file a bond reduction motion and argue it before the court Monday. "I just want my wife out of jail today."