City Arrests Parents to Fight Truancy

ByABC News
February 28, 2002, 7:38 PM

Feb. 28 -- It's 6:30 a.m. and Jacksonville, Fla., police are on a citywide truancy roundup. But they are not going after students. They are arresting parents who fail to keep their children in school.

"We're serious about this," said George Marshall, an investigator with the State's Attorney's office in Jacksonville. "This whole process is to get the attention of the parents so they can work harder to keep those kids in school regularly. If they are not there, they can't learn."

Few cities combat truancy as aggressively as Jacksonville. If a child has more than five unexcused absences in a calendar month or 15 unexcused absences in a 90-day period, parents can be arrested, charged with a misdemeanor and face up to 60 days in jail.

It is the last resort in a multifaceted, anti-truancy campaign that can also include family counseling, home visits and daily police sweeps to pick up students who are skipping school.

But it is the arrests that have had the biggest impact, in part because public embarrassment is part of the plan. Cameras are routinely invited along for the arrests to help make the point.

"I think shame should be part of the equation. These people are not performing their most important function, taking care of their children," said State's Attorney Harry Shorstein of the 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida.

In the Classrooms Means Out of Courtrooms

Shorstein says he goes after parents to make sure their children stay out of his courtrooms. "Almost all of the cases of residential burglaries and in many cases vehicle thefts, were committed by children who should have been in school."

So Jacksonville police are always on the prowl for students skipping school, checking parks, malls, beaches or anywhere young people are known to congregate. Once caught, students are dropped off at one of three truancy centers in the city where they face an army of counselors who are as tough as drill sergeants.

"Do you think you want to do time?" barked Gene Heath, the city's chief truancy officer, when a group of six high school students were brought in by police. One of the young men invited his five friends to hang out in his home while his mother was at work, and the noise attracted the attention of neighbors.