Parents of truants plead guilty; District judge tries resistant cases from Canton Middle School


Thirteen-year-old Michael Pazdzioko stood red-faced and teary-eyed before Southeastern District Judge Charlotte M. Cooksey yesterday in Baltimore, and scrambled to come up with a good excuse for the 27 days he has skipped this school year.

"There are some kids who pick on me," he said in his crackling, adolescent voice.

His answer was no good. Social problems or not, Cooksey said, Michael must be in school, on time, every day.

Cooksey accepted a guilty plea from Michael's mother, Helen, for Michael's truancy and ordered a court investigation into the Pazdziokos' home environment. Depending on the results of that investigation, Helen Pazdzioko could receive 10 days in jail and a $50 fine for every day Michael has missed.

"This problem has to be solved," Cooksey told Helen Pazdzioko. "Don't take this investigation lightly. Work with them so we can come up with a solution."

Pazdzioko and seven other Canton Middle School parents faced Cooksey yesterday to answer for the dozens of days their children have skipped school.

Four -- including Pazdzioko -- pleaded guilty and will be sentenced Feb. 12, pending the court investigation into factors that might have led to their children's truancy. Four others had their trials postponed until Feb. 12, so they could obtain lawyers. A ninth parent failed to appear. A warrant will be issued for her arrest.

Yesterday's trials were a rarity, according to some observers, despite the thousands of children that skip school in Baltimore each day.

Canton Principal Craig Spilman has been working with police and court officials to crack down on children who skip school. The school has met with parents repeatedly and police and court officials have warned parents that repeated truancy on their children's part would carry consequences for them. The efforts have persuaded about 40 parents to get their children back into school, Spilman said. The nine who faced trial yesterday had been resistant.

Spilman said more parents from Canton might soon find themselves in court.

"We've got a second cohort of about 50 parents that we're working with now, whose kids we're trying to get back into school on a regular basis," Spilman said. "We'll probably be back here sometime next month with those who don't respond to our efforts."

Most of the parents who were tried yesterday seemed desperate for help from the court with children they say are out of control.

Clint and Peggy Hornberger said their children, Richard and Amy, sometimes sign in to school and then walk out the door. The children missed nearly half of October, although Peggy says their attendance has improved since Christmas break.

"I don't know what to do," Hornberger told the judge.

Sheila Manigo said her granddaughter, Sierra Brooks, missed some of her 29 days this school year because of illnesses, but school officials have no record of that excuse.

Susan Land, attorney for the Pazdziokos, told the judge that Michael's truancy is not really Helen's fault.

Helen Pazdziokos, Land said, is a working mother of three who is raising her children alone while her husband serves a jail sentence. Helen sometimes must report to work at a SuperFresh grocery store as early as 6 a.m. and can't be sure her son goes to school after she leaves, Land said.

"We know Michael has not been going to school, but she has done everything short of quitting work and physically taking him into the school " Land said. "What else can she do?"

State's Attorney Laura Mullalley agreed that no adult was available to make sure Michael gets to school and said the court needs to determine what other social structures might be available to improve his attendance.

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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