Maureen Blake was surprised to see squad cars in her Virginia neighborhood one January evening — and even more shocked when the sheriff’s deputies came to her door. Blake was hosting a slumber party for her children, but deputies took her outside, handcuffed her and hauled her away.
Her crime: tardy kids. Blake had dropped off her three elementary school children late 10 times since the start of the school year.
On Wednesday a second family from Loudon County, Va., the same suburban school district outside Washington, will be in court on a similar charge. Mark and Amy Denicore also have three children in elementary school in the county. They face misdemeanor charges for showing up late to school more than two dozen times.
“Admittedly, we are not perfect,” Mark Denicore told ABC News, but he said for the most part his children have just been minutes late to their first classes.
Denicore, an attorney, argues that the school district has no legal right to charge parents for their tardy children. He accused the district of “bullying parents.”
The school district argues that it is disruptive to others in the classroom to have students walk in late, and Denicore conceded that may be a legitimate argument. But, he asked, “What else is causing a disruption? Passing a note? Chewing gum? Are they going to charge the parents?”
The cases have started a debate over how far school districts should go to deal with parents of students who are chronically late. Any parent who has struggled to get their child to school on time knows how difficult that can be sometimes.
Loudon County School District spokesman Wayde Byard insisted it’s a long process of working with families before they ever end up in court. “We’re in the partnership business, not the punishment business”, he said. “By the time we get to the court it shows there’s been a breakdown on both sides. We cannot reach an agreement.”
Byard said, “Even when they’re a minute late, they have to come to the office, be processed, it has to be noted. When you’re talking 30, 40, 50 times a year, it’s very disruptive.”
Blake, a single mother, says she has ADHD and admits it’s a challenge for her to manage in the mornings. Her arrest in January was her second offense. Blake was first found guilty of getting her children to school late during the last school year, and she paid nearly $2,000 in fines.
Still, Blake argues, “The reasons for lateness are all frankly quite irrelevant to the question of whether being late is a criminal act and should be a crime.” She was back in court last month on the tardiness charges for this school year. Blake was, again, found guilty and fined $3,000. Those fines will be forgiven if she now gets her children to school on time.
Both Blake and the Denicores say the school district has argued that late arrivals could hurt their children’s education, but the two families say their children are doing well in school, and have no academic or behavioral problems.
But the Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators, Dan Domenech, says parents have to understand it’s not just about them and their child. Domenech said habitual lateness creates problems. “The disruptive factor, the security factor, the bad-example factor,” he said.
Still, he said, “I think generally school districts have a somewhat of a liberal policy on this issue.” He added, “It is unique for it to rise to the level that it has in Loudon County.”
The Denicore family will argue in court Wednesday that the school district has no legal basis for the charges against them. Mark Denicore told ABC News, “We are using the courts too much to resolve our problems. I’m a lawyer, and I can say that.”