Avoyelles School Board favors 'get tough' approach to excessive absences

12th Judicial Court Judge Billy Bennett has a clear message for parents and students who run afoul of the state’s school attendance law: “Who wants to go to jail?”

The judge said the Avoyelles Parish judicial system is ready to crack down on students with excessive absences and the parents who allow it. Board members agreed, pledging the APSD Central Office will work with all parties to begin Bennett’s outlined process as soon as this week.

Bennett addressed the board’s Executive Committee at its Nov. 28 meeting.

The problem of excessive absences was raised at the Nov. 14 meeting of the Education Committee, where board members asked that representatives of the district judges and the District Attorney’s Office attend the Nov. 28 meeting.

Child Welfare & Attendance Supervisor Jennifer Dismer reported there have been 150 truancy cases over the past two school years.

Assistant District Attorneys Jennifer Beckham and Derek Manuel were also at the committee meeting and discussed reasons behind the handling of cases, including “pre-trial intervention” (PTI). Under the PTI program, the parents admit there is a problem, pay $100, attend a parenting class costing about $50 and a life skills class costing another $50. Teenage children must also attend the life skills class.

TRUANCY WARRANTS

Beckham added that all but four of the cases have been processed. Some warrants on truancy charges have been issued, but APSO is not serving them unless the parent is given a traffic ticket or arrested on another charge. She said APSO will not go to the home just to serve a truancy warrant. The main reason for that is that the parent’s birth date is not listed on the warrant.

“The system we have in place now doesn’t work,” Bennett said following Beckham’s comments. “There are two things that used to work -- a night court or a judge goes to the school to talk to the parent and student.

“In each option, before any comment is made the judge will ask, ‘Who wants to go to jail?’ You will be sent to jail for 90 days. Everyone’s eyes get big when you inform them on what will happen if they don’t obey the truancy law.”

In night court, the District Attorney’s Office, judges, principals, Child Welfare & Attendance supervisor and Families in Need of Services (FINS) officer meet with the parent and student.

Bennett said he does not know why the parish stopped using that method of dealing with truancy, but believes all parties of the judiciary system would agree to start that process again.

“It is extra work for everyone, but for truancy I don’t think anyone will turn down helping on this issue,” Bennett continued. “It seemed to work in the past and can’t hurt to try again. No one wants to see their mother or child go to jail for not going to school.”

If the student is under 17, the parent could go to jail. If the student is 17 or older, but ignores the parents, the student could go to jail, District Attorney Charles Riddle said after the meeting.

Bennett said the 90-day sentence will be suspended if the parent agrees the student will return to school and attend school every day for the rest of the school year. If those terms are not followed, the parent or student would serve the 90-day sentence.

4 JUVENILE CASE JUDGES

Bennett said there are four juvenile case judges that would hear such cases -- he, 12th District Judge Kerry Spruill, Ward 2/Marksville Judge Angelo Piazza and Ward 10/Bunkie Judge Digger Earles. Bennett said he believes he speaks for himself and the other three judges when he says they will work to put students back in school.

Bennett said the school district should send the judges and the district attorney a copy of the letter it sends to parents once their child has missed eight days of school and not wait until the “13-day” letter to notify the court system.

“We can start the process sooner and hopefully stop some of it before it gets to the 13-day letter, when it goes into the judiciary system,” Bennett said. “We need to get to them before the legal process starts. We need to be progressive beforehand.”

Dismer said the number of 8-day letters could be four times the number of cases that have been turned over to the courts.

Bennett said that doesn’t matter and volunteered to go to the schools as soon as the school system gets the names of the students with eight or more absences.

As for the cases already in the system, Bennett said the court can have a “pre-trial conference.”

APSD Superintendent Blaine Dauzat said the school system could start turning over cases this coming week to get the process started.

Once a school has three or more students who have missed eight days, one of the judges will be called to address the issues at that school.

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