- Darcy Muenchrath
Until this fall, children who skipped school were likely to get in trouble with their parents, maybe with school administrators, but rarely with the law. On the broadening spectrum of juvenile delinquency, truancy ranked somewhere in the vicinity of a curfew violation. Only the most chronic truants had to muster excuses before a judge.
That changed in September, when Governor Bob Taft's truancy law went into effect. It requires schools to report the worst offenders -- and their parents -- to juvenile court.
Few disagree with the legislation's intent -- to keep kids in school. In practice, however, the law may turn into a nightmare, particularly in the truancy hotbed of Cuyahoga County. Administrators will have to be trained, parents will have to be notified, and an already burdened justice system could find itself inundated with thousands of additional cases. Yet the new get-tough decree arrives with no new money to actually handle the extra work. The state's rallying cry: Just do it.
"The only problem we have with the new law is that there's no financial assistance," says Dr. Alvin E. Fulton, director of pupil services for East Cleveland City Schools. "We're going to need more people to scrutinize the truants. The assistant principals are already bogged down."
State Senator Robert Spada, who sponsored the bill, says he was told the schools should not receive extra funding "because it doesn't require them to do anything they weren't already supposed to be doing." The Parma Heights Republican isn't so quick to dismiss the anticipated burden on juvenile court, however.
Last year the Cuyahoga court processed 1,077 truancy cases. Before the county's schools start enforcing the new law, court administrator Ken Lusnia asked them to determine how many truants each expects to send the court's way.
"The numbers could be extremely high because of the [law's] 'chronic' and 'habitual' truant definitions," says Lusnia. "It wouldn't take long before someone's a habitual truant. I think the number could be in the thousands."
"Habitual truants" are those who miss school without a legitimate excuse for 5 or more consecutive days, 7 or more days in a month, or 12 or more days in a year. A "chronic truant" is absent 7 or more consecutive days, 10 or more days in a month, or 15 or more days in a year. Under the law, judges can order truants to drug, mental health treatment, or service programs. They can also deem parents guilty of "parental education neglect" and fine them or order community service.
In the 77,000-student Cleveland Municipal School District alone, 17 percent of high school students, 14 percent of middle school students, and 6 percent of elementary school students are absent on any given day, excused or unexcused. Spokesman Dan Minnich says the number of students considered habitual or chronic won't be determined until the semester ends on January 19.
But those numbers could be just the ammunition the court and schools need to get the legislature's help. A spokesperson for Ann Womer Benjamin, chairwoman of the House Criminal Justice Committee, says the General Assembly has agreed to explore funding options.
"Everyone is pretty cognizant of the fact that there will be a need for additional funding for both the schools and the court," says Lusnia. "It's just really difficult to make a rational proposal when we don't know what kind of numbers we're really going to be facing."
It is possible, of course, that the law will scare kids back to school, and the court will escape the expected crush of new truancy cases. But Melissa Saladonis, manager of the Coalition for Greater Cleveland's Children, says a deluge is much more likely, with the new law "opening the floodgates."