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Can courts get students back in class next year?

Judge Paige McThenia hears CMS truancy cases in 2018.
Diedra Laird
Courtesy of Charlotte Observer
Judge Paige McThenia hears CMS truancy cases in 2018.

This story first appeared in Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. Sign up hereSign up here to get it to your inbox first.

As extremely high rates of student absenteeism drag on, some people are frustrated with the adults who let it happen.

“There are a lot of people who say, ‘I want to make sure that kid gets to school, and if the parents can’t ensure they get that kid to school, send them to jail,’ ” District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said when I interviewed him recently for a story on chronic absence in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The frustration is understandable. A national problem that was bad before the pandemic shut down schools got worse after students returned. CMS estimated that almost 23% of students would miss at least 10% of school days — meeting the definition of chronic absence — in the year that just ended. That’s almost one in four, or more than 32,000 students at risk of falling behind and failing. And the problem tends to be worse at the schools where most students are already facing poverty, language barriers and other challenges.

But Merriweather says there are a couple of problems with the “throw them in jail” scenario. One is that truancy is a Class 1 misdemeanor, which he says is “quite unlikely to result in a jail term.”

“In fact, what it would likely result in is a probationary sentence that would look very much like the conditions that were in place before the person even ended up in court,” he said.

Dire circumstances

The bigger problem, Merriweather says, is that truancy court tends to be a parade of families in desperate straits. Chronic absence is usually a reflection of poverty and other serious challenges, not criminality. They may be homeless, jobless, grappling with health crises or addiction. A court summons seldom makes things better for the children, he said.

When I was working for The Charlotte Observer in 2018, courts reporter Michael Gordon and I spent a morning in truancy court. Among the defendants were a Vietnamese father who didn’t speak English, a mother whose 10-year-old was responsible for getting younger siblings ready for school, a mother who was traveling between Charlotte and New York for medical treatment and a mother of eight suffering from depression. No one went to jail. Some got praise for progress, while others got stern warnings and referrals to agencies that might help.

At the time, CMS was also conducting “truancy courts” at several schools. Real judges would show up in their robes and try to impress upon parents the need to find help and get their kids in class. But it was hard to get parents to consistently show up, and the district’s research found no significant long-term difference between students whose parents participated and those who didn’t.

‘A house on fire’

COVID-19 shut all of that down. When students returned, they came with anxieties, family stresses — and in some cases, day jobs and a new work-from-home mentality that led to skyrocketing absences.

The virus shut courts, too. And when they reopened, cases were backlogged. Merriweather says he’s willing to prosecute truancy cases, but there’s a lot of competition for court time, including a rise in juvenile crime and a shortage of judges.

“Everything that we do within our court system has to be thinking about how it is that we prioritize cases effectively,” he said. He describes kids consistently missing school as “a house on fire” — high priority that requires quick action.

And a truancy trial is not exactly a speeding fire truck. CMS has to exhaust its other options, then go to a magistrate. And perhaps this shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the families who are hard for school officials to locate can also prove elusive when it comes to serving them with notice that they must appear in court, Merriweather says.

For the coming year, Merriweather expects truancy court to continue for cases where “kids are not going to school because of parents’ ill will.” But for those thousands of students who are at risk because they or their families are in crisis, Merriweather and CMS leaders hope to convene a bucket brigade to put out the fire: Social service agencies, housing support, health care providers, mentoring groups and others.

CMS has talked about creating truancy mediation centers across the county. It’s not clear if those would take the quasi-judicial nature of the old school-based truancy courts. But if so, Merriweather says he’s all in, even if there aren’t enough judges to volunteer their time.

“I even said, ‘Listen, if we don’t necessarily have judges to preside over an out-of-courthouse truancy session, I’d do it,’ ” he said.

Education CMSEducation
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.