Saturday, September 13, 2003

Truants' moms ordered to court

By Cindy Schroeder
The Cincinnati Enquirer

COVINGTON - Fed up with parents who don't send their children to school, Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney Garry Edmondson is taking the mothers of four chronic truants to court.

One parent let her child skip school 67 days last year, Edmondson said. Another let her fifth-grade child miss 35 days of class and run late 18 times.

A third let her elementary-age child skip 24 days and rack up 14 unexcused tardies. Still another allowed her first-grader to run late 27 times and miss 19 days of classes.

Ryan Watters, Kristie Kirtley, Shawna Walters and Barbara Bass will appear in Kenton District Court next week to answer charges of educational neglect. All have children in Covington Public Schools. Charges are pending against a fifth parent.

Lester Gamble, Covington Public Schools' director of pupil personnel, said educators tried without success to resolve the chronic truancies through a variety of means, including allowing one child to transfer schools and letting another within walking distance ride the bus to school.

Excuses have ranged from "My alarm clock didn't work" to "I go to work early, so my children have to get up by themselves," but the result is the same, prosecutors said.

"If children are not in school, they're not learning,'' said Lisa Gross, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Education. "And if a school district has low average daily attendance, that will be reflected in the funding it receives from the state."

It's not unusual to file charges against parents of truants, Kenton County prosecutors and school officials say.

But this is the first time authorities have charged parents of truants for offenses that occurred in the previous school year, they say.

"We're trying to send the message to parents that we're not going to tolerate this kind of behavior," Edmondson said.

Cincinnati Public Schools, where nearly one-fourth of the students failed to show up on the first day of school last month, has partnered with Hamilton County Juvenile Court to set up truancy courts in elementary schools with some of the worst truancy problems, spokeswoman Janet Walsh said.

As in Covington, Cincinnati educators work with families and social workers to resolve issues that might keep a student from school.

Under Kentucky law, a parent who permits three unexcused absences or tardies can be held responsible and prosecuted. Parents face a fine of $100 for the first offense, a $250 fine for the second offense and a $250 fine and/or up to 90 days in jail for third-time offenders.

Kenton County's fight against truancy is being waged on a number of other fronts.

Edmondson; Kenton District Judge Douglas Grothaus; and Jeff Middendorf, the county's juvenile court prosecutor, created a public service announcement that will soon air on closed-circuit TV in Covington Public Schools.

"We take them on a tour of the facility where (chronic teen-aged truants) can be locked up," Edmondson said. "We let them know that they can go to jail and their parents can, too.''

Edmondson also has appeared on State Rep. Jon Draud's Education Issues cable TV show to publicize the crackdown on truants and their parents.

With one of the highest absentee rates in the state, Covington Public Schools continues to try a variety of approaches to boost attendance rates - from pizza parties for homerooms with the highest attendance rates, to giveaways for students with perfect attendance to staff rides for some children who have problems getting to school.

Educators also call parents for unexcused absences, visit homes of chronic truants, and refer students and their families to social service agencies if necessary.


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