A Garner mother faces criminal charges that could send her to jail because her 13-year-old daughter has missed too many days of school.
Wake County school officials allege in a criminal summons that Karen Skinner hasn’t made a good-faith effort to ensure her daughter regularly attends East Garner Middle School. But Skinner, who has been charged twice since 2014 with violating the state’s compulsory school attendance law, contends her daughter has missed so much time because the girl is the victim of bullying and an unsympathetic school bureaucracy.
Last year, 639 parents or guardians were convicted statewide of violating the school attendance law, putting them at risk of up to 120 days behind bars. More typically, the sentence for committing the Class 1 misdemeanor was 30 days in jail and a year of probation.
“My daughter is screaming for help, and they can’t give her a tutor,” said Skinner, who has a July court date. “Why are they putting the money into the courts instead of into my daughter?”
Wake school officials say they can’t comment on Skinner’s case. But school officials say they pursue criminal charges only after all other options have been exhausted.
“When we’ve had students who’ve been out for an excessive number of absences based on state guidelines, we will try all sorts of interventions,” said Marrius Pettiford, the Wake school system’s senior director of counseling and student services. “If it gets beyond a certain point after all the interventions have been tried, our last resort would be to try to get to the court system.”
Under state law, parents are subject to prosecution if their children have at least 10 unexcused absences in a school year. Parents can get absences excused for various reasons, including illness, a death in the family and religious observances.
School officials say it’s important to make sure students are in school because less time in class means less time spent learning.
School districts have different approaches for combating truancy. For instance, Durham Public Schools created truancy courts in every school – a step before filing criminal charges – that are credited with helping reduce absenteeism.
In Wake County, Pettiford said criminal charges are considered when students have 20 unexcused absences in a yearlong course or 10 during a semester if a student is on a block schedule. On a block schedule, yearlong courses are compressed into half a school year.
Wake had most
Statewide, 1,586 people were charged with violating the school attendance law in 2014. Wake County, which has the largest school system in the state at more than 150,000 students, had the most people charged of any county at 105.
Robeson County, whose school system is much smaller than Wake at 24,000 students, had the second-most people charged at 84. Mecklenburg County – home to the state’s second-largest school system – had 28 people charged.
Many of the charges don’t result in convictions, because school districts use steps such as mediation to resolve the court cases.
Mediators at Carolina Dispute Settlement Services helped lead to the dismissal of the first charge filed against Skinner, the Garner mother, in January 2014. The mediator also will assist in trying to resolve the new charge filed against Skinner in April 2015.
Skinner estimates her daughter has missed half of her classes in the past two school years. She said her daughter throws up or has dry heaves because of anxiety nearly every morning.
Skinner attributes her daughter’s reluctance to go to school to students bullying the girl about being gay with both verbal and physical assaults. Skinner said her daughter is still traumatized from having been thrown into a locker by other girls and being trapped inside for several minutes.
Skinner’s daughter was attending North Garner Middle School during the 2013-14 school year when the mom says the bullying began. She transferred to East Garner Middle this year, but Skinner said the bullying continued.
“This is not a truancy issue,” she said. “This is a bullying issue. Why would I not want my child to get an education?”
News researchers Teresa Leonard and David Raynor contributed to this report.
Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui
North Carolina’s school attendance law
Under state law, children between the ages of 7 and 16 are required to attend school continuously. But children under 7 who are enrolled in kindergarten through second grade are also subject to the law.
After three unexcused absences in a school year, the principal notifies the child’s parent/custodian/guardian.
No later than the sixth unexcused absence, the principal notifies parents that they may be prosecuted for violating the attendance law. The principal is also supposed to work with the family to eliminate the problems causing the absences.
After 10 unexcused absences, the principal contacts the parent to see if they’ve been notified about the law and made a good-faith effort to comply. If a good-faith effort wasn’t made, the district attorney’s office is contacted.
Truancy cases in the Triangle
Court records show that 1,586 defendants were charged with violating North Carolina’s school attendance law in 2014.