Christina Miller, of Lenzburg, admits the last year has been hard for her and her family. They lost a beloved family member, and her oldest son, Cody Canady, 15, and his two younger sisters have battled chronic illnesses.
Cody, a sophomore at Marissa Junior Senior High, had six unexcused absences and 32 tardies last school year. However, Miller never imagined these absences and tardies would result in criminal charges against her.
Miller, 29, is one of an increasing number of parents who have been charged this year by St. Clair County State's Attorney Brendan Kelly with truancy, a criminal misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in prison, a fine, or both. This year, St. Clair County prosecutors have charged 13 parents of chronically truant students. Eight parents were charged in 2013, and one in 2012.
Similarly, Madison County State's Attorney's Office also is charging more parents and guardians with criminal misdemeanors for permitting truancy: 30 so far this year; 10 individuals in 2013 and seven in 2012.
"Many prosecutors across the country are focusing more on prevention instead of just reaction to violent crime. We will always fight for justice for the victims of crime, but we have to fight just as hard against the threats that give rise to violent crime," Kelly said. "Truancy is often the first page to a lot of sad stories. And when we see kids missing school and have parents that refuse to cooperate in their education at home or at school time often time we have to act. There are too many adults headed to prison because no one fought for them when they were young."
Miller said she's supportive of Cody's education but also his health. Cody suffers from migraines, which sometimes force him to miss school as the medicine he takes makes him drowsy. He also has attention deficit and hyper tension disorder.
Cody doesn't think his mother deserves what has happened. "I don't think she should have to go through all this," he said. "It's kind of bogus."
This school year is going to be especially hard for Miller and her son. "Anything he misses is going to be truancy," Miller said. "I don't know what to do. I'm just at a loss."
Since February, she said Cody has had about 10 tardies and four unexcused absences. "I know I missed a few days, but most should have been excused," Cody said. "I don't get why they are counting everything as truancy."
In general, St. Clair County Regional Superintendent Susan Sarfaty explained a truant student has nine unexcused absences in the past 180 school day period, according to Illinois law.
"Technically you can have someone the third day of school be truant if it's the ninth day of unexcused absences," she said, "because it goes back to the past school year."
Under Illinois law, a child aged 7 to 17 must attend school. The Illinois School Code defines "truant" as a child "who is absent without valid cause from such attendance for a school day or portion thereof."
Valid causes include: illness, observance of a religious holiday, death in the immediate family or a family emergency.
Being tardy can also lead to more unexcused absences depending on how many minutes a student misses of a school day, and if they have a valid excuse for being late.
"For a student to be counted present for the entire day, they must be there for at least 300 minutes," Sarfaty said. "If a school day is 305 minutes and they are five minutes tardy, they miss a half day."
If a student attends school for less than 150 minutes, then they miss a whole school day.
Kelly said children of the 13 parents his office charged this year have missed anywhere from 11 to 158 days of school. Truancy cases fall within the Children's Justice Division of the St. Clair County State's Attorney's Office, which was created in 2013.
Of the 20 truancy cases against parents the last two years, Kelly said 10 parents were found guilty, five cases are pending; three individuals charged failed to appear and have warrants out; and two parents have yet to be located to be served.
LOCAL TRUANCY PROCESS
Public school districts follow similar steps in notifying parents if their child is on the path toward truancy.
After three unexcused absences, a school sends a letter to parents and schedules home/office visits.
If it continues, the school district superintendent sends a letter to parents after six days of unexcused absences; which require they meet with the Local Truancy Review Board for a corrective action plan.
After nine unexcused absences, the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education sends a letter requiring the parent to appear at a hearing at the office in Belleville.
Marissa School District 40 Superintendent Kevin Cogdill said the district has a parent/community/school liaison, who works with children constantly missing school.
If necessary, the parent meets with the local truancy board. "We try to help the parent alleviate any problem with trying to get the child to school," Cogdill explained. "If that doesn't work, we have another truancy hearing. Each situation is different and the only way you can solve it is to try to work locally with it. We have had success by meeting locally."
The local truancy board, he said, may include the child's classroom teacher, principal and parent and district-employed social worker or guidance counselor.
If the local hearings prove unsuccessful, the case is referred to the Regional Office of Education, and then Cogdill said it's out of the district's control.
"I think there has been a societal change about the importance of attending school every day," he said. "A lot of these parents may be single parents and may be struggling to get a sitter or struggling financially. There are a lot of elements to it."
THE NEXT STEP
When a truancy case is referred to the Regional Office, Sarfaty said staff members in her office research to find out what special circumstances surround the case and what local agencies may be of help to the student and family.
"There's a whole variety of reasons why students aren't attending school," she said.
Parents of truant children receive a letter from the regional office stating when their regional truancy hearing is, and what would happen if they miss it. "So the parents understand the gravity of the situation," Sarfaty said.
The Regional Truancy Review Board includes a truancy hearing officer, a school district representative, an assistant state's attorney, a parent and if applicable, the child if in middle or high school. Representatives of different social agencies also may attend if the board thinks it would be beneficial for the family.
The review board determines a plan of action for the parent and child to correct the truancy issues.
Miller said she was told to make sure her son attends every one of his classes every school day at Marissa Junior-Senior High.
If a chronically truant student continues to have unexcused absences, Sarfaty said that's when the state's attorney may step in and charge the parent with a misdemeanor.
Kelly has really made it a mission of his to make sure children are in school, Sarfaty said.
"We both agree the only way children can get a great education is for them to be in the classroom. When they are not in the classroom, they have the opportunity to get into trouble," Sarfaty said. "We both truly believe it's critical for these kids to be in school everyday. When there's unexcused and unexplained reasons for them to be absent, we need to be vigilant and work to get those kids in school."
If parents have real issues contributing to the truancy, the courts will take that into consideration, according to Kelly. "The truancy process and the courts give a great deal of leeway to parents that make an effort and communicate genuine challenges to school officials, but at some point additional measures kick in," he said.
When children are truant or don't attend school on a regular basis, Madison County prosecutors pursue charges against the parents as well as the children if in middle or high school, according to officials.
About 12 children are expected to be in truancy court next month for unexcused absences racked up last school year, according to Scott Cooper, coordinator of the truancy court in Madison County. There are also 21 active truancy cases against parents/guardians in Madison County, he said.
Before court action is taken, Cooper said "a great deal" of work has been done by the school district and the Madison County Regional Office of Education. Often times, truancy officers whether with a district or the regional office work diligently to make contact with the student and parent.
"They hunt down, track down, encourage ... push parents to get their kids to school," Cooper said of truancy officers.
Madison County Regional Superintendent Robert Daiber said the regional office of education is notified of chronically truant students by school districts and its truancy officer investigates the case.
The truancy officer conducts a home visit and makes personal contact with a parent, he said. The officer works with the parent to clarify any misunderstanding with the absences, Daiber said, or find avenues to correct the issues resulting in poor school attendance.
"We try to prevent chronic truancy before it happens that's our goal," he said.
However if parents remain non-complaint, they are referred to truancy court in Madison County.
Daiber praised the creation of the truancy court several years ago. "It has been a real deterrent to parents ignoring the truancy law, because they face consequences," he said. "We don't want to be exercising this initiative, but if it's necessary we do. We don't really want parents going to court; we want kids going to school."
Truancy court isn't unique to Madison County; counties in other states across the U.S. have truancy courts as well such as Dallas County in Texas and Monroe County in Indiana.
Parents of younger children missing school often are charged with permitting truancy, and middle and high school-aged students are charged as juveniles with truancy as well in Madison County. Kelly said charging juveniles has not proven successful in St. Clair County.
"Getting them (parents) to court can be as difficult as getting their kids in school," Cooper said.
Of the 21 active cases involving parents charged with truancy in Madison County, six have warrants out for not showing up in court.
"Many of them have their own distinctive criminal records," he said of parents.
Parents who are convicted with permitting truancy are often fined and given probation. Cooper said they are required to attend parenting classes as well.
For students, it's important to get them counseling, he said, which is often available through the school district.
There's a "high correlation" between children getting into trouble legally and them not attending school regularly, according to Cooper.
Christina Miller is due back in court on Sept. 11 for a sentence review. Between doctor appointments for Cody and her two other small children and dealing with truancy meetings, Miller, who is unemployed, said she hasn't been able to find a job.
"I have to take my time to deal with all this," she said.
Miller refuses to spend money unnecessarily on medical expenses related to taking her son to the doctor if he has a migraine just to obtain a note for his school. She said she has medicine for him at home, and she knows how to treat his migraines herself.
"It's just a headache with this school," Miller said.