SEBRING — No one is calling it a new initiative, but Sebring Police and the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office arrested seven parents for truancy last year.
One parent was charged with five counts of failure to have a child attend school. After a plea agreement, she was sentenced by County Judge Anthony Ritenour to 12 months probation and fined $375 plus the cost of prosecution, said Assistant State Attorney Gary Ellis.
Failure to have a child attend school is a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and six months probation. Students can be punished, too: the Department of Highway Safety is required not to issue a driver’s license or learner’s permit, and to suspend the driver’s license of a minor.
School Board of Highlands County members have had their eyes on chronic absenteeism, said School Board member Charlene Edwards. The Student Services Department has presented information on the effects.
“The effects start in the early grades,” Edwards said. “If you’re not attending in kindergarten — and it’s not compulsory to in Florida — and the first grade, then you may not be reading in third grade. If affects the rest of the time they are in school.
“If they’re not in their seats, they can’t learn,” Edwards said. “Some parents don’t think kindergarten is important. It is critical. They learn social skills, they learn to get along, they learn to read.”
Truancy is a legal term; chronic absence is school terminology, she pointed out.
Parents come up with all sorts of excuses, Ellis said, from sickness, to the alarm clock not going off, to missing the bus, to not having a car.
“Juveniles who are not in school do have more opportunity to get in trouble that requires law enforcement involvement,” Sheriff Paul Blackman said, “but our main concern is because we know that children who do not attend school have very little chance of becoming productive adults.”
Chronic absenteeism is common. A study from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection showed 6.5 million American students — 13 percent nationwide — missed three or more weeks of school in excused or unexcused absences that year.
“That’s enough time to erode their achievement and threaten their chance of graduating,” said the 2016 study, Preventing Missed Opportunity. “More than half of those chronically absent students are in elementary or middle school. Some gaps in the data suggest the numbers may be an undercount.”
However, truancy is rare. “We don’t get that many truancy cases,” Ellis said.
One reason why: school social worker Darlene Dick and the school resource officers like Sebring Police Department’s Wilma Tindell work with parents and students, Ellis said. “They do everything they can possibly do. What they try to do is get these folks in compliance, get these kids to attend regularly. We don’t want to prosecute parents. They don’t have many options left when they get to us. Their documentation makes that pretty clear.
“If you have children that are school age,” Ellis said, “you need to have them go to school. There are programs and there are folks who are available to help you to succeed and get in compliance. That’s the law. If parents want their kids in school, there is a way to make that happen. You should never be in a position for it to be in our office. There should be no excuse.”