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Mother pays for son's truancy

Doreen Corpas kept her 8-year-old son home from school 112 of the 180 days of the 2004-05 academic year because she didn't like his teacher.

She said so Friday in Hernando County Court.

And she was punished for it.

County Judge Don Scaglione rendered an unsurprising guilty verdict at the end of a non-jury trial - a trial that went against the advice of Corpas' attorney - and sentenced her to six months of probation. Any future absences won't be allowed without a note from a doctor. A note from Corpas, Scaglione said, would no longer be sufficient.

Corpas, 43, who lives on Bluestone Avenue in Spring Hill, shook her head and cried and declared to the court that she still didn't think she had done anything wrong.

"Well, ma'am," Scaglione said, "unfortunately, under the law, you did.

"You can't do this and deprive your son of the education he deserves."

State law is simple and straightforward: Everybody between the ages of 6 and 16 must go to school. Corpas' son missed 11 days in November at J.D. Floyd Elementary, records show, 13 in December, 18 in January, and it got worse from there. The boy, who is 9 and is in his second year of third grade, has had better attendance this year - but it has been getting more sporadic in the last couple of months.

Truancy isn't uncommon, but rarely do cases get to this point, said Barbara Smith, the coordinator of student services for the Hernando school district - and especially for cases concerning kids under 10 because those parents can face criminal charges.

Corpas' son is what school officials call a habitual truant. That's a student who has five unexcused absences in 30 days or 15 in 90. The boy missed more than enough to qualify, according to testimony on Friday from school administrators, social workers - and Corpas, too.

Friday's trial started with Public Defender Diane Ubele stating for the record that she had advised her client to accept pretrial intervention or accept a no-contest plea. This trial, she told the judge, was not her idea. Never a good sign.

The defense strategy was sketchy. Ubele tried to argue that the school district didn't do enough to help Corpas.

Corpas was the only defense witness. She chose to testify. And she said little on the stand that helped her cause.

Corpas showed for her trial wearing calf-length jeans and a Windbreaker. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail. She arrived with dog-eared papers stuffed into a folder that was held together by heavy tape.

She testified that she didn't like the teacher.

"I didn't like what my son was coming home with and not coming home with," she said.

She also said she didn't like the cafeteria and that she'd had similar problems at Chocachatti Elementary when her son was in kindergarten and first and second grades.

She complained that J.D. Floyd didn't let her son transfer.

School officials testified that a medical or financial hardship typically is needed for a transfer. Corpas and her son didn't qualify. They also said Corpas didn't show up at meetings to address her concerns and didn't respond to letters, phone calls and a visit to her home by an attendance assistant.

The bottom line?

Prosecutor Lisa Chittaro asked school social worker Kimberly Johns if Corpas' son had been in school in January and February of 2005.

"No," she said.

March?

No.

April?

No.

"Not one day," Johns said.

Scaglione's verdict came quick. Corpas kept her son out of school, he said, "basically because she didn't get what she wanted.

"The loser through all of this," the judge said, "is her child."

The boy, thin-legged with short, blond hair, was in the courtroom for the verdict. Scaglione called him bright, attentive and well behaved. "He acts better than a lot of adults in my courtroom," the judge said.

"Please," Scaglione told Corpas, "for the benefit of your son, who's an adorable little boy, he needs to have an education. You need to work with everyone. Do you understand?"

"I did not do anything wrong," Corpas announced to the court.

"Next time she's here, I'll be jumping up and down asking for 60 days in jail," said Chittaro, the prosecutor. "She's learned absolutely nothing from this. We're going to be coming right back here."

Corpas kissed her son on the top of his head and took his hand and made her way out of the courtroom. She didn't want to talk to the Times out in the hall and refused to take a business card just in case she changed her mind.

Three things are supposed to happen on Monday: The boy is scheduled to take the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. His mother is required to report for probation. And the School Board is going to be sending her a truancy letter about the latest absences.

Michael Kruse can be reached at mkruse@spttmes.com or (352) 848-1434.

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