By Sarah Lehr
Suspending students for missing school has been compared to punishing kids for not eating broccoli by taking away all the broccoli.
State Rep. Bill Hayes of Granville, a Republican, made that comment last year as co-sponsor of a bill aimed at changing how Ohio schools and courts deal with students who skip school.
House Bill 410 would prohibit schools from punishing truancy via suspensions. The bill also seeks to make it more difficult for courts to punish truancy as a criminal matter, by mandating that an “intervention team” work to resolve the issue before filing a complaint in court.
The bill passed the Ohio House of Representatives 92-1 and is awaiting approval in the state Senate. The measure reflects a growing consensus among education experts who argue that punitive, so-called “zero-tolerance” policies do more harm than good.
Under Ohio law, it is possible for students to face charges in juvenile court due to repeated unexcused tardiness or absences from school. The charge is typically less severe due to being a “status offense,” meaning an offense that is only considered a violation because of the offender’s status as a minor.
Under Ohio “parental-responsibility” law, it is also possible for guardians to face criminal charges because of children who are “habitually” (absent from school without a legitimate excuse for five or more consecutive days, seven or more school days in one school month, or 12 or more school days in one year) or “chronically” truant (absent from school without a legitimate excuse for seven or more consecutive school days, 10 or more school days in one school month, or 15 or more school days in a school year). Punishment could be a fine and community service. If truancy results in charges of neglect or contributing to the delinquency of a minor, jail time is a possibility.
Mahoning County Juvenile Court Judge Teresa Dellick described House Bill 410 as a step in the right direction.
“Why would we punish kids by taking away their civil right to an education?” she said, adding that students’ grades will suffer further if they have to catch up on work missed during a suspension. “How are we helping our students in the long run?”
Dellick cited the juvenile court’s early-warning intervention program as an effective way to address the root causes of truancy before the matter results in criminal punishment.
“K-12 is more important than learning about the War of 1812,” Dellick said. “K-12 is about developing as a human being. So, we want our students not just physically in school, but participating in school. School is a concentrated time when you are surrounded for eight hours among individuals who are living in a society.”
The county received a $600,000 federal grant to partner with schools for the program. Mahoning County High School and the Valley’s largest school districts — Austintown, Boardman, Struthers and Youngstown — are participating.
The intent Dellick said is to identify truancy, academic performance and behavioral issues before the problem escalates. It has resulted in a reduction of cases filed on the “official” side of the juvenile court’s docket, Dellick said, as opposed to the “unofficial” side of the docket, which focuses more on remediation.
“It is keeping kids in school and out of the justice system,” said Linda McNally, a grants coordinator for the juvenile court. “The No. 1 factor that leads to kids in the justice system is actually truancy, and that’s why we’re focusing on truancy.”
She described the program as holistic.
“When you talk to students about why they’re missing school, it could be that their parents are incarcerated, or that there was divorce or even a death,” McNally said. “What we’re trying to do is connect them to intervention to deal with the trauma that could be as serious as sexual abuse.”
Campbell Prosecutor Brian Macala this school year reinstated a program of meeting with guardians of children who are truant from Campbell City Schools. Campbell has an ordinance, which is similar to state law, allowing the city to prosecute parents or guardians when their children are consistently absent from school without a valid excuse.
Macala meets with guardians who are referred to him via the school resource officer. He said his goal is compliance, but he makes it clear to parents that prosecution is possible through Campbell Municipal Court if they do not comply.
“I’ve had parents come in here and basically plead ... hey, help me with this, I’ve got a 16-year-old, 17-year-old son, I just can’t handle this. I can tell him to go to school. I want him to go to school. He just won’t listen,” Macala said. “Sometimes we’ve had to take action through juvenile court on those students.”
Macala said he recalled “about two or three cases” of truancy resulting in charges over the course of 11 years of his meeting with guardians. “The reason we do this informally is I don’t want to bring parents into the courtroom ... I don’t want to charge parents for them not having their kids in school, but I think we all have an interest in children being educated. If it is that parents are going to be lax in the obligation, sometimes the state has to step up and say ‘no.’
“Sometimes having that hammer — to say this in the consequence if you don’t do ‘A’, this is what ‘B’ is going to be — I think is valuable,” Macala added.
Dellick said she “commended” Campbell for addressing the issue of truancy, but expressed misgivings, saying that she felt prosecution of parents could exacerbate problems for children. She suggested Campbell schools might be able to join the county’s early-intervention program in the future.
Campbell schools Superintendent Matthew Bowen said the involvement of the city’s prosecutor only comes after a “series of many steps” from the teachers, administrators and counselors. He cited rewards for attendance and a positive school climate as the impetus for increased attendance rates among high school students as compared to this time last school year.
“The goal is not to be punitive,” Bowen said. “We don’t have a truancy problem at Campbell. Our focus is on creating a productive school climate. Children are excited to come to school.”
The Campbell district does use in-school suspensions for disciplinary infractions including truancy. Brad Yeager, assistant high school principal, said he has never chosen to penalize a student with an out-of-school suspension.
Rosann Tung, director of research and policy for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, said zero-tolerance policies harm students, referring to research showing uneven enforcement of disciplinary codes at public schools, so as to disproportionately punish male students and students of color.
Tung added that schools should work to standardize disciplinary systems for the sake of equity.
“Any time you deal with something on a case-by-case basis, it’s inviting people’s unconscious biases,” she said.
Dellick cited restorative-justice (a system that focuses on rehabilitating offenders in the interest of victims and the community) training and positive-action training in the schools, through the early-intervention grant, adding that she felt such programs were more helpful than “criminalizing adolescent behavior.”
The judge said that while school resource-officers in Mahoning County are “professional, highly-trained, thoughtful individuals,” she is troubled by the push to place law enforcement in schools.
“I’d like to see no more school-resource officers and no more metal detectors in Mahoning County schools,” Dellick said. “I think schools like resource officers, in part because of worries about shootings, but, statistically, the rate of crime in the schools is very low. When I was in school, people kept arrows for archery club in the lockers. We had food fights. If you were involved in a food fight, you went to the principal’s office. You weren’t arrested. We’re creating the school-to-prison pipeline. We’re just heightening everything instead of learning to be more social.”