If it were up to her, Ashley Booker’s third-grade student would be in school every day. But a health issue prompted the 26-year-old mother to put her daughter in a family member’s care, which she said eventually led to the girl’s truancy and Booker receiving a criminal summons to answer for those absences.
That’s why Booker turned up Monday at the Family and Youth Service Center, which hosted a session for 91 East Baton Rouge Parish parents cited in a “truancy roundup” this month after allegedly failing to make sure their children regularly attend school. In total, 121 parents were issued summonses this school year.
Of the parents cited in the recent roundup, only 47 showed up at Monday’s mandatory meetings aimed at connecting parents with social services and helping get their kids back in the classroom.
“Our job is not to put you in jail. Our job is to put your child in school,” Roxson Welch, FYSC executive director, said to the group of parents, mostly mothers. The “roundup” was a last resort to reach parents after phone calls, mailings and home visits yielded no attendance improvements in children with 10 or more unexcused absences, Welch said. Some kids missed as many as 70 days of school, she added.
“There’s a definite link between truancy and crime,” said Stephanie Hicks, the center’s truancy task force director and an East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputy.
While law enforcement only issued summonses for improper supervision of a minor, rather than book parents into jail, the misdemeanor allegation will appear on a parent’s record, Welch said.
The parents also must appear before a judge. If a parent fails to do so, Welch said, police could issue a warrant for his or her arrest.
Criminalizing truancy could be harmful in the long run, said Josh Perry, executive director of the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights.
“It’s hard to see how arresting parents will help keep children in school. Young people thrive in safe homes with supportive adults. Arrest, court processing and imprisonment cause parents to lose their jobs and disrupt family lives,” he wrote in an email.
Welch said she saw the process differently. Efforts by FYSC, which partnered with the Sheriff’s Office, the Baton Rouge Police Department, the District Attorney’s Office and the Constable’s Office on these parent roundups in recent years, have brought down truancy 29 percent over the past three years, she said.
The criminal summons is a hammer that falls only after other warnings didn’t work, Welch said.
“We’ve done everything in our power to get (parents’) attention, and it has failed,” she said. A misdemeanor mark on a criminal record, she said, “is so much less than a lifetime sentence of no education.”
Juanita Williams, 27, and Derrick Liggans, 37, said they appreciated the help FYSC and school officials tried to give them. Their daughter, who’s in fifth grade, never missed class but was marked absent after repeatedly arriving late, having switched schools due to the family’s relocations, the couple said.
“We moved about three times, to my grandmother’s place, then my momma; she just passed,” Liggans said.
But the two couldn’t pinpoint any one improvement they could make to ensure their girl gets to school on time, citing transportation challenges.
“Sometimes the bus won’t even come,” Liggans said.