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Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member says superintendent is ignoring NC truancy law

Ann Doss Helms
School board member Sean Strain (right) has told Superintendent Earnest Winston (left) he can't opt out of the state's truancy law.

As Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools struggles to get students back into classrooms, one school board member is questioning why Superintendent Earnest Winston isn’t following state truancy law and referring parents for possible prosecution.

Even before the pandemic, CMS leaders had identified chronic absenteeism as a major obstacle to academic success. That’s defined as missing at least 10% of school days.

In a Breaking the Link report published in May of 2019, three months before Winston became superintendent, CMS noted that chronic absences are especially high in high-poverty schools and contribute to persistent racial gaps in performance. “Absenteeism at this level can disrupt instructional continuity for the students missing school as well as for those students who are present, and leaves many chronically absent students scrambling to catch up,” the report says.

The shift to remote learning because of COVID-19 drove up absences, and Winston has told the board chronic absences remain a factor in the struggle to rebuild academic skills now that classes are in person.

Taking action as absences build

In light of that, board member Sean Strain emailed Winston last week asking for the number of warning letters sent after six and 10 absences, as well as the number of criminal complaints filed against parents or guardians.

State law makes it a misdemeanor for parents to allow their children to accumulate 10 or more unexcused absences, with the possibility of jail time or fines. The law requires principals to determine whether parents have made a good-faith effort to comply, and if not, to notify the district attorney’s office and social services.

CMS regulations say principals must send letters after the sixth absence, and again after the 10th, warning parents they could face arrest and prosecution. Schools are also expected to work with families to identify the reason for absences and help get the children back on track.

After 10 unexcused absences, the CMS regulation says, “if it is determined that the parents have not made a good faith effort to comply with the law, the Student Services Department staff will contact the CMS Police Department for assistance in requesting a criminal summons from the Mecklenburg County magistrate.”

Winston: Not tracking or filing complaints

In an email exchange, Winston told Strain that warning letters are sent by schools.

“This means that there is no clear way to determine how many 6- and 10-day letters have actually been sent,” Winston wrote. “The actual answer to the question of how many letters have been sent would have to be generated via inquiry at each of our 180 schools. We’re checking to see if there are other ways to gather this information.”

As to criminal complaints, Winston wrote, “the Mecklenburg County Courts are currently not taking truancy cases due to a case backlog created by the pandemic. As a result, this school year, there have been no criminal complaints filed. This is a source of frustration, however, criminal prosecution of parents for attendance is regarded as poor practice and is a highly ineffective method of improving student attendance.”

Strain replied that he doesn’t think a court backlog changes the district’s legal obligations for handling truancy.

“Generally speaking, I believe the remediation for ‘poor practices’ enumerated in statute is to achieve change in the state law, not to ignore or consciously violate it,” Strain wrote. “Are there other ‘poor practices’ reflected in (state law) that your office is consciously violating?”

Strain and Winston both indicated in their emails that the exchange will continue next week, after spring break.

How the system works

Blair Rhodes, communications director for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, asked general counsel Allison Schafer about the exchange between Strain and Winston.

“She shared that the board member is correct,” Rhodes said. “If the courts and district attorney choose not to prosecute the cases, schools can’t control that, but they cannot ignore legal requirements imposed on them.”

The Mecklenburg County District Attorney’s Office couldn’t immediately provide information on the prospects for pursuing truancy cases. A spokesperson said the person who handles those cases is off this week.

Superior Court Judge Lou Trosch has worked with CMS on truancy control for about 20 years. He said Thursday that the overwhelming majority of cases are resolved without resorting to the courts, as school staff connect with families and work with community agencies that can provide support.

Before the pandemic CMS also held "truancy courts" in schools. Parents of chronically absent students were asked to attend sessions with volunteer judges, who warned them about prosecution and urged them to develop plans for better attendance. But when all of that failed, prosecutors could press charges and parents were summoned to court, where judges tried to work out plans to stabilize families and get kids back in school.

"Sometimes you need some outside leverage when the schools have tried everything they can and can't overcome those obstacles," Trosch said. "That's like one of a thousand, one out of 10,000 cases. But there are those cases."

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.
Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.