Schools Fight Truancy by Arresting Parents

March 17, 2005 -- -- As school officials around the country try to crack down on truancy, one thing they're finding is that skipping out seems to run in the family.

So in Michigan, New Mexico and Tennessee, school officials have turned to law enforcement to help them make parents take responsibility for getting their kids to school, and they're doing it by arresting parents of chronically truant children.

In Michigan's Genesee County, Prosecutor David Leyton is behind the effort, which will result in some parents actually going to jail for failing to send their child to school.

Because the problem with truancy is worse than what Leyton originally thought it was, he is taking advantage of a rarely used Michigan law that has been on the books for 20 years. It allows parents of truant children to be put in jail for up to 90 days if they do not change their children's ways.

In the cases with children of elementary school age, it is the parents' fault and they need to be held accountable when they have no good reason for their kids being out, Leyton said.

"Those are the kinds of cases that I don't buy as good excuses," Leyton said. "If you are just too drunk or too stoned or too tired to get out of bed in the morning and take your kid to school, that's unacceptable."

Last month in Detroit, more than 30 parents were arrested and jailed for up to three days.

Prosecutors in the city said they only took the extreme measure after warning the parents first. The parents who were arrested on Feb. 7 had all failed to appear at court hearings on charges of parental school truancy.

Some of the parents who were led away in handcuffs claimed that they and their children were innocent, while other parents had explanations.

"They're not irate, but everyone has a reason or an excuse for it," Detroit Public Safety chief Charles Mitchell said. "They're not happy, because they realize that when they got here that there were going through a legal process."

One arrested mother, who wished to keep her identity concealed, said her daughter "was out ill. I did write a note. I started keeping a copy for myself, so I had no problems, you know. Here it is, almost three years later, and they're saying I received a letter in the mail that there was an outstanding warrant for my arrest."

Parents who turned themselves in not only got a free ride to the Wayne County jail, but they saved themselves the embarrassment that other parents will face when they are arrested at home or on their job.

"As we tried to work with them and their families, it is just not sunk in yet that attendance is necessary for improving student achievement," said Sylvia Halloyfield, who works in the district Department of Attendance for Detroit Public Schools.

Leyton said he believes jail time is just what some of these parents need.

"When two warning letters come from a child's school, one from the prosecutor's office and a final from the courts to appear in front of a judge fail, that parent should be held accountable," he said.

Leyton said parents will get several chances to respond to warning letters before they are convicted and sentenced to one to two days in jail.

In Knox County, Tenn., parents have been slow to get the message, too, prosecutors said.

Some parents were arrested last month for failing to appear for a truancy meeting to which they had been summoned, and more attended this month's meeting earlier this week -- but not too many more.

Usually, about 50 percent of parents who are required to attend actually do. On Tuesday, 58 percent attended, prosecutors said.

A total of 582 parents got letters saying if they didn't sign in Tuesday, they faced arrest. Of those, 341 listened, but even some of those people didn't think they belonged there.

"Some parents, I hate to say this, don't care if their kids go to school or not," said Melinda Nelson, a parent who attended the meeting. "It's a real inconvenience for parents that do care. And for those that don't care, they just plain old don't care."

Nelson said her son, Shawn, missed 13 days, sick with the flu, bronchitis and pneumonia.

A spokeswoman with the district attorney's office said the February images in the media of parents facing a judge helped, luring even reluctant parents to the meeting.

"When we arrested the parents, the principals at school tell us that for the next few days, parents were bringing their kids to school and the attendance rate really went up a great deal," spokeswoman Rhonda Garren said. "Parents were coming in saying, 'I don't want to be arrested. Here's my child.' "

The parents and students packed a cramped auditorium at West High School for Tuesday's meeting. Some even had to stand during the 15-minute speech.

"The ones that attend tonight, if their children stay in school they don't hear from us again," Garren said.

Kids seemed to get the message, too.

"If my mom was to get arrested, yeah, I guess I'd feel pretty bad," Shawn Nelson said.

As for the parents who didn't attend Tuesday's meeting, prosecutors said investigators will find out why they were not there and if there is no documentable excuse, they will be arrested.

"I would tell people that if I were you, I'd have my child in school the next few days and few weeks," Knox County District Attorney Randy Nichols said. "We are indeed watching."

He said there are already plans to issue six warrants for other parents, and parents will continue to be arrested until the truancy problem is corrected.

ABC News affiliates WJRT-TV in Flint, Mich., WXYZ-TV in Detroit and WATE-TV in Knoxville, Tenn., contributed to this report.