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DA says CMS can still bring truancy charges, but the goal isn't sending parents to jail

Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather
Mecklenburg County District Attorney's Office
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather

Shortly before he was fired, Superintendent Earnest Winston told a Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board member he couldn’t take truancy cases to court because of a pandemic backlog. District Attorney Spencer Merriweather says that’s not true.

School board member Sean Strain recently asked Winston for data related to chronic absenteeism. That included a request for the number of criminal truancy complaints filed this year.

North Carolina law requires principals to notify the district attorney’s office and social services if their kids pile up 10 unexcused absences and the parents haven’t made a good-faith effort to get their children to school.

In an email exchange, Winston said no criminal complaints have been filed this year because of the court backlog.

But Merriweather says once in-person classes resumed this school year, his staff got in touch with CMS, "telling them, ‘Listen, if you’ve got particular priorities for truancy that you need us to figure out a place to place them in court, we can do that too. You just need to give us a call so we can review those cases and work through them.’ And that didn’t happen."

Merriweather says truancy cases were suspended during the first year of the pandemic when courts were closed and his staff wasn’t sure how to prove truancy from virtual classes. Now, he says, the backlog is real but not insurmountable.

"Even at this point, we’re still willing to review any cases that they give to us or any cases that they present to us," he said.

Strain says his biggest concern is that Winston opted not to comply with the law. He voted Tuesday to fire Winston and said from the dais that he thought Winston should have been denied severance because of unspecified compliance violations. After the meeting, Strain said the truancy decision is the most recent example.

To be clear, no one — including Merriweather — thinks prosecution is the best solution for the large number of CMS students who miss so much school that they fall behind. School staff, district administrators, social workers and community agencies all try to provide support before calling in prosecutors. Only the most extreme cases go to court.

"These are, nine times out of 10, terribly desperate circumstances where parents are unable to follow through on getting their kid to school," he said.

In 2018 Mecklenburg County District Court judges launched an approach Merriweather refers to as therapeutic court. It’s not about going to trial and getting convictions, he says, but bringing parents together with a judge, a prosecutor and CMS officials, "trying to dig into what sort of solutions might be out there to make it so this person can get their kid to school and we can all develop a plan for the betterment of their family."

Even before the pandemic, Spencer said, truancy court cases were rare: fewer than 50 in 2019. None went to full trial; families were given second chances, and if they pleaded guilty they got an arrangement where their record would be cleared if they met the plan for getting kids back in school.

There are skeptics who say it’s never a good idea to traumatize struggling families by threatening them with criminal charges. But Merriweather argues that a few families need that jolt.

"It may take the trappings of a courtroom to get someone’s attention to realize how serious this is," he said. "But nobody is going into this process, you know, thinking about sending anybody to jail for it." 

Hugh Hattabaugh takes office as interim superintendent on Monday, and pursuing truancy charges may not be his top priority. But Merriweather says the court system is getting up to full speed, and he predicts the return of truancy court in the near future.

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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.