Judges with the St. Charles Parish 29th Judicial Court are being proactive when it comes to school absences, ordering 85 families to court to sign an agreement ensuring the students will attend school every day they are able.
Failure to comply with the agreement and go over the state-mandated absence threshold could mean fines or jail time for the offending students and their parents.
The move is in response to legislation introduced in 2010 that drastically cut down on the days of school students were allowed to miss. In high school, that means students are allowed to miss only five days per class. They were previously allowed to miss eight days per course.
Elementary and middle school students are allowed to miss only 10 days per year, down from the previously allowed 17 days per year.
Judge M. Lauren Lemmon said the 85 families ordered to court on Aug. 6 were chosen because the students still had truancy issues when school ended last year.
"They had to sign an agreement and be committed to not being truant this school year," Lemmon said. "We tend to balance it out in cases where we think the parent or student is more to blame, but both parents and students had to sign the agreement."
The agreement says that the student must attend school every day with no unexcused absences or tardies while obeying school rules. The parent must agree to comply with state law regarding school attendance or face a possible $250 fine and/or 30 days in jail.
This is just another step the schools and judicial court are taking to make sure students stay on track. In 2010, a truancy court was created to hear the cases of students who miss too much school or have too many tardies. The court meets on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the school year.
"When we meet with them the first time, we tell them that they can’t have any more tardies or absences or both the student and parents can be subject to jail or community service," Lemmon said. "This doesn’t create a whole lot more work for us and it allows us to show them how serious this issue is."
Lemmon believes that truancy court had a tremendous impact on school attendance. In fact, attendance has increased overall since the new legislation was introduced. While Lemmon said the goal of truancy court is not to fine someone or put them in jail, it has happened in the past.
"I have given jail time and given community service for parents and their children or just the child," Lemmon said. "It has been less than a handful of times where that has occurred, but we are serious about people breaking the law."
Lemmon added that most of the truancy problems occur with freshmen because they face a stricter attendance policy when entering high school. Tardiness and absences also tend to increase in the spring when students are nearing the end of the school year. Still, she is proud of how well the program has worked and hopes a more proactive approach this year will reduce unexcused absences even more.
"We are proud of how well we work with the school system to improve our community and families," she said. "We hope this will result in less absences and tardies and decrease the need for truancy court appearances."
Jerry Smith, the director of the schools’ Child Welfare and Attendance Department, said that her office does take many initiatives to prevent truancy and excessive absences, including counseling students, calling parents and making home visits.
However, she is excited to have the support of the parish’s judges.
"This (agreement) will set the tone at the beginning of the school year before students have any absences," she said. "I am hoping that it will make an impact and show students and parents that the school system and the judicial system are working together to prevent truancy."