When students don't go to school, parents go to jail

Barbara Gaskins says she took her 15-year-old son to his bus stop every morning at 7:30, well in time for his 9 a.m. homeroom bell at Patterson High School. She obtained as many medical excuses as the doctor would allow when her son suffered from a series of stomach viruses. And she has taught her children that they have to "get an education to get somewhere in life."

But Gaskins was recently jailed for 10 days — one of the dozen parents of Baltimore City students to receive a sentence this year — after failing to send her child to school 103 of 130 days.

More than 400 parents have received notification this school year that they would face a District Court judge as a result of charges filed by the school system's Office of Attendance and Truancy.

Even more than a letter home from their students' teachers or principals, parents dread a letter from Alfred Barbour, the court liaison for the school system. He enforces the school system's philosophy that children younger than 16 — the state's compulsory age of attendance — missing exorbitant amounts of school is not only unacceptable but criminal.

"At the end of the rainbow is a referral to court," Barbour said. "Before that, many efforts and processes and steps have been done at the school level, and nothing has worked, everything has failed."

In cases that result in parents doing jail time, Barbour said, the school system is "dealing with the worst of the worse. And we have to show that we are not playing. This is the law."

Court appearance

On March 29, Gaskins was among the parents filing through the Baltimore City District Courthouse in Northwest Baltimore to defend themselves against the charge that they had knowingly and willingly failed to send their students to school.

"We don't want to send anyone to jail," Barbour said. "Sending them to jail can have a tremendous impact on the family, disrupting the family."

When she was sentenced to 10 days in jail, to be served five consecutive weekends, Gaskins said she was most concerned about who would care for her four children, all school-age.

"Of course, I'm scared: I've never been in trouble with the law — period," a teary-eyed Gaskins said in an interview after she received her sentence, which began that Friday. "We're a Christian family."

But it was the third time Gaskins had gone before District Judge Barbara B. Waxman since she was first cited in April last year.

"I made sure he was there," Gaskins said in the interview. "I did everything they asked me to do."

Gaskins' son told Waxman during his mother's hearing that he had been in school but wasn't marked present. He said that he was excelling in his science class and "had the knowledge" to prove it.

Waxman pointed out that between Feb. 11 and March 2, Gaskins' last trial date, he was marked absent every day. Between March 2 and the March 29 trial date, he had missed 10 days.

"I made a promise that I would increase it, and I did, right?" the teenager responded.

Ultimately, Waxman told Gaskins that the case has spiraled out of control for long enough.

"I told you I was willing to work with you, and I've tried to instill how important this is," Waxman said. "You have not taken this very seriously."

Attendance and truancy experts say that taking the step of jailing parents for their children's absenteeism is not always an effective tactic.

"It's really important to have a comprehensive approach to truancy," said Hedy Chang, director of Attendance Works, a national organization that analyzes attendance data and policies, including Maryland's.

The most recent Attendance Works analysis found that more than 80,000 students in Maryland are missing 20 or more days of school each year; some of the highest numbers are in Baltimore City and Prince George's County.

"You can use legal action to move change, but usually there are other issues," Chang said. "Courts are usually not the place to unpack those issues and barriers to support."

The school system pledged more tactics and support this school year after Baltimore noted a 7.5 percent truancy rate in 2010. That year, about 6,200 students were considered habitually truant, meaning that they were out at least 20 percent of the time.

The focus has increased efforts at the school and central office level, said Jonathan Brice, who oversees the Office of Truancy as the executive director for the school system's office of student support and safety. Schools have revved up efforts by making phone calls and home visits, sending letters home and even providing more incentives for students who attend school regularly.

Filing a statement of charges in court is the last resort, he said.

Small percentages

"We're dealing with less than 1 percent of students and parents, and certainly this is one of the toughest decisions we have," Brice said. "But it's critical that we get those parents' and young people's attention about the seriousness of being in school."

Barbour said cases like Gaskins' are rare. No parents were sentenced to jail last year, and about three were the year before that.

About 402 parents have been cited this school year, 407 in the 2010 school year, and 375 in 2009. Charges are filed against parents after a school notes that a student has 15 or more days of unexcused absences. The district, usually Barbour and a witness from the school, have to prove that the truancy is the parents' fault.

Barbour said that usually when the school system files charges against parents, 14 percent of cases improve, and after parents show up for their first court appearance, about 43 percent improve their attendance.

Second and third appearances are usually egregious enough that no excuse is acceptable, he said.

"Literally hundreds and hundreds of excuses are given at that point," he said. "Every story has two sides to it, and whatever issue they can dream up — every one of those issues can be addressed."

Barbour said that not all cases are as clear-cut as Gaskins'.

"Sometimes it's our fight alone, and I'm against lawyers who are making $400 to $500 for those few minutes," Barbour said. "And I've had judges on the bench who say, 'I don't believe in sending moms to jail for something the child won't do.' "

Fareed Nassor Hayat, a defense attorney with the People's Law Firm, agrees with those judges.

Hayat, a Los Angeles teacher-turned-Baltimore attorney, defended his first truancy case against the school system March 29. Hayat argued against allowing any evidence — not even the number of days allegedly missed — to be introduced in his client's case, which was dismissed.

He said that the school system often is not challenged on the fact that Barbour doesn't have firsthand knowledge of the absences and therefore shouldn't be able to testify about them.

"I think the school system kind of abuses its power, where they come in and muscle people into pleading guilty," he said. "I have a moral issue with how they're criminalizing parents who aren't really criminals at all — and it doesn't even fix the problem."

Barbour, who has been with the school system's truancy office for seven years and doing the court work for three, said he understands the objections. But he keeps in mind the thousands of children, especially the younger ones, who fall through the cracks. He has about 100 open cases left this school year.

"I often think that I have the worst job in Baltimore City; nobody likes me," he said. "But the reason I do this is because I have a great fondness of children and I believe they are our future. I'm just trying to save as many as I can."