Schools fight truancy with charges
Justice of the Peace Duncan Neblett’s Port Aransas courtroom was full, even though Neblett himself was on vacation. Sitting on the bench in his place was visiting judge Janice Stoner, normally justice of the peace in Nueces County Precinct 2, Place 1.
At hand were truancy cases – charges against parents that they had allowed their children to skip school without adequate excuses, or in some cases too many times past the maximum of seven allowed by Port Aransas ISD.
Records show there were 24 truancy cases heard in the court that week alone. Superintendent Dr. Sharon Doughty considers that amazing.
“I guess if I were to ‘guess,’ I would say no more than four to five truancy cases per school a year would be good. And that is purely a guess.”
What she does know is that 24 in a week is way out of line, though that may be a high for the year.
In fact, school records show that this school year alone, Port Aransas High School has taken 11students to court on charges of truancy, and two of those students were filed on twice. Brundrett Middle School teachers have filed two truancy charges this year, and expect to file another before the school year is over – that will be on Friday, June 3, at graduation. At H.G. Olsen Elementary, 19 students have been charged with truancy.
Speaking to the judge, one parent said her 11-year-old had been ill a lot.
“I send a note with her, but she doesn’t turn it in,” the mother said.
“But there are a lot of unexcused absences here (on the record),” Stoner responded. She said the mother needs to make sure the notes get to the school office.
“A lot of these kids forget,” Stoner said.
The mother pleaded no contest; Stoner issued a court order for the child to attend school, and added that if there’s more truancy, the mother will face a $500 fine. That’s the maximum for a Class C misdemeanor, the class of offense under which truancy falls.
“I never thought this would happen,” the mother said.
A Port Aransas High School student told Stoner he sometimes misses “one or two periods” when he sleeps late, and said he’s missed entire days when he hasn’t felt well.
Stoner noted that the school district has guidelines for getting absences for illness excused; she said the student hasn’t been following that process.
He also pleaded no contest; Stoner fined him $240 and court costs.
Others have told the South Jetty they don’t believe they’ve had enough notice for when they should appear in court. One person said he was notified on Wednesday evening of a Friday morning trial date.
No one in Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 would speak for the record, and no judge was available for interview at deadline, but justices of the peace noramally set hearings on truancy cases quickly, to remedy the truancy as soon as possible, according to court policy. And Chief Deputy Monty Allen, of Nueces County Precinct 4 Constable Bobby Sherwood’s office, said two days isn’t an unusual length of time for court notice.
“They try to move quickly on truancy cases,” Allen confirmed. “They give us the paperwork and we try to serve them as soon as we can. But if we have trouble locating someone, it could take us two or three days to serve the summons.”
Allen recommended calling the judge for a continuance of the case if the defendant feels there’s not enough time to prepare.
“They’re usually pretty good about that,” he said.
Doughty said there’s no reason parents and students shouldn’t be familiar with the school district’s rules.
“Each year, the parents receive notice from the school in the form of a student handbook,” she said. “They can choose to access the handbook either electronically or we can give them a hard copy. All parents must sign the attached form (in the handbook).”
The handbook says, among other things, that the district allows parents to sign off for as many as seven student absences. Anything more than that must be verified by a doctor or other health care professional.
Doughty said that includes school nurse Melissa Ramsden, if the student visits the school nurse’s office.
(Even with the absences excused, however, if a student misses as much as 10 percent of the school year – that would normally be 18 days of a 180-day school year – her or she can be held back.)
At least one parent also has complained that there was on communication from the school district when the child approached the cut-off point of seven absences. The thought was that someone – perhaps the teacher, perhaps the principal – could have mentioned to the parent that the point of filing truancy charges was growing near.
However, state law (the Texas Education Code, section 25.095) requires school districts to warn parents at the beginning of the school year that excessive absences can result in prosecution, and it also requires the district to notify a parent if the student is absent more than three days in a four-week period.
Principals at two of Port Aransas’ three campuses confirmed that they have warning policies.
“We send letters home letting them know (their child is approaching maximum absences),” said Pat Nelson at H.G. Olsen Elementary School. “We let them know they can call us, also.”
Nelson said the letters normally go out after the child’s fifth absence.
At Port Aransas High School, principal Sharon McKinney said administrators always send letters to parents when filing truancy becomes possible. However, she said there’s no written policy on exactly when those letters will be sent.
“A lot depends on the circumstances,” she said. “If a student is out three days with the flu, that’s one thing. If he’s absent for three successive Mondays, that’s another thing.”
McKinney said she often chats with students between classes if they’re running up absences.
Gina McKeever, the principal at Brundrett Middle School, was in a meeting and could not be reached for comment.
One case that has drawn attention in Port Aransas is that of Ginny Shaw, charged with allowing her child to have too many unexcused absences. Shaw, a teacher at H.G. Olsen Elementary, is the wife of Harry Shaw, the former Army paratrooper who lost both legs during the invasion of Grenada. She said she has to go out of town with him for treatment and they have no place to leave their daughter. That case is set to be heard tomorrow, Friday, May 20.
Also set to be heard Friday is the case of Ann Appling, a school board member and volunteer. Appling pleaded not guilty to the charge, she said, but declined to discuss it until after the hearing.
Both cases will be before the court the day after the school board meets (6 p.m. Thursday, May 19, in the board room, 100 S. Station St.) and Doughty briefs board members on the district’s attendance policy.
“It’s a legal policy and we can’t change it,” she said. “I just want to clarify it.”
She added that the district doesn’t make the rules – they’re part of the Texas Education Code, which governs compulsory attendance.
On top of that, state educational funding to school districts is based on the average daily attendance. The absence of a student costs Port Aransas ISD $53 per student per day.
“One more piece of data you might be interested in is that from the first day of school through May 9, Port Aransas ISD students had 998 unexcused absences: H.G. Olsen 611, Brundrett Middle School 102 and Port Aransas High School 285,” Doughty wrote in an email. “That is a lot of unexcused absences.”
“A lot of people think it’s about the money,” said McKinney, the principal at Port Aransas High School. “It’s not. It’s about education. You can’t educate a child if he’s not in the classroom.”
Questions or comments? Reach Reynolds at (361) 749-5131 or firstname.lastname@example.org .