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Parents of Truants Get Apt Sentence: Hard Time Working in Child's School

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The Paterson, N.J., schools and a local judge have joined forces in a new strategy to combat chronic absenteeism: sentencing the parents of habitually truant students to scrub graffiti off school walls, serve as hall monitors, and perform other menial tasks in the schools.

Since Feb. 17, Nestor F. Guzman, a municipal-court judge in the city, has sentenced 30 parents of truant students to spend between one week and 30 days each working in their child's school.

While elsewhere around the country judges have sentenced parents to attend school with their truant children, Paterson is believed to be the only district that requires parents to perform services for the schools.

To date, all 30 parents have completed their mandated service, and school administrators are hailing the program a success in limiting absenteeism. Average daily attendance had risen to 93 percent as of March, up from 91.2 percent in the 1990-91 school year.

"The response we've gotten has been much more positive; [the parents] are very supportive,'' Chuck Coligan, a spokesman for the district, said, noting that most parents try to schedule their period of service as soon as possible after sentencing.

"The sentence is a very nice alternative, considering what the other alternative is, which is a jail sentence,'' he added.

'Growing Concern'

Paterson's problems are "no more chronic'' than those of most urban districts, according to Mr. Coligan. Located in northern New Jersey about 15 miles west of New York City, Paterson is the state's third-largest district, with an enrollment of 24,263 students.

Last summer, declaring the district bankrupt and poorly managed, the New Jersey Board of Education took control of the schools. It immediately disbanded the Paterson board of education and fired Superintendent Frank Napier Jr., replacing him with Laval S. Wilson, the former superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

"It's clear that attendance was a problem along with a number of other issues,'' Mr. Wilson said. The new program "indicates to parents that they have a major responsibility legally to get young people to school, and, if their young people are not going to attend, there are some personal penalties associated with it,'' he added.

Growing concern about truancy is also evident in City Hall. Paterson's Mayor, William J. Pascrell, who also serves in the state Assembly, has introduced state legislation that would classify a parent's failure to ensure that his or her child attends school as a "petty disorderly persons'' offense, punishable by a fine of up to $500, 30 days in jail, or both.

Currently, district policy in Paterson requires students to attend school at least 160 days a year, and to have no more than 20 unexcused absences.

In a typical truancy case, once a student has accrued 5 days of unexcused absences, one of the district's 16 attendance officers sends a written notice to the student's home. At the 10-, 15-, and 20-day marks, an officer pays a personal visit to the child's parents at home.

Under current state law, once students pass the 20-day mark, their parents can be fined $25 for a first offense and $100 for a second offense. For a third offense, they can be jailed.

By the time a case reaches the courts, Mr. Coligan said, most truant students have accumulated 32 days of unexcused absences. In one of the most egregious cases, a student missed 115 days of school in one academic year.

While Paterson's program appears to be unique in mandating parent service to the school, an increasing number of jurisdictions are punishing the parents of truants, according to representatives of several organizations that track juvenile-justice issues.

One such program, LearnFare, launched in Wisconsin in 1988, cuts families' welfare benefits if their child has more than two unexcused absences in a month.

However, a study by the Employment and Training Institute at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee was unable to attribute any improvement in attendance levels to the program.

In some of the most extreme situations, parents in Atlanta, Baltimore, and Chicago have been jailed for failing to send their children to school.

"Truancy is a thorn in the side of every juvenile-justice system in the country,'' said David Steinhart, a senior researcher with the National Council on Crime and Delinquency in San Francisco.

Because schools and the courts have continually failed to coordinate their anti-truancy efforts, Mr. Steinhart said, enforcement of attendance requirements has often been "spotty and poor.''

"Nothing seems to work all that well,'' he observed.

Only a Stopgap?

Critics of punitive measures such as those used in Paterson say the programs are short-term cures that do not address the root of the problem.

"I have deep concerns about whether [it's] going to result in anything in the long run,'' said William Rioux, the executive director of the National Committee for Citizens in Education.

"Mandating parental involvement is tempting because it's so frustrating to take the longer, more time-consuming route, but [that is] the only one that's going to pay off over time,'' he said. "You can't force people to do something they don't really see the innate value of.''

Others suggested that requiring parents to meet with counselors and teachers to talk about their child's absenteeism would be more constructive.

Mr. Coligan conceded that "some individuals, regardless of what the court decides and what the school decides, will not see the value of education.'' But he disagreed that forcing parents to perform service at the school might engender resentment among them.

"The parent plays an important role in getting the kids there,'' he said. "If the cooperation [of the parent] comes via the channel of the courts, then we'll take that, we'll accept that.''

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