Truancy bill clears up law’s contradictions

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 4, 2001

A bill passed by the Mississippi Legislature this week to remove truancy from the list of juvenile delinquent offenses won’t change anything in Adams County, said Youth Court Judge John Hudson.

Hudson said he supports the bill because it will clear up contradictory language in the state code on juvenile justice and free up space in the state’s training schools for more serious offenders. &uot;You’re talking about a statute that is correcting language in another statute,&uot; he said.

A state compulsory school attendance law passed in the early 1980s effectively created truancy as a status offense because any child age 16 and under was required to attend school.

Later, truancy was also added to the list of delinquent crimes – those for which youth could be sent to training school.

Then in the 1990s, yet another state law mandated that juveniles could not be sent to training school on a truancy offense alone.

But Hudson said, unlike Adams County, many youth courts ignored the law and continued to sentence truants to training school, filling up beds needed for more serious offenders.

The newest law, approved by the Senate and passed unanimously by the House of Representatives this week, removes truancy from the list of delinquent crimes and clearly defines it as solely a status offense, one that Hudson said courts usually handle through probation and entering the youth in corrective programs.

&uot;The intent of the Legislature is to clean up the statute and place the offense where it needed to be in the first place,&uot; he said.

Juveniles identified as truants who do not conform to the order of the youth court and return to school will still be charged with contempt of court, which is a delinquent offense that can warrant time in training school, Hudson said. Though the new law won’t affect the way truants are dealt with in Adams County, others like Dr. Carl Davis, Natchez-Adams School District superintendent, said the threat of being sent to training school can be a useful tool to keeping children in school.

&uot;You’ve got to have something to hang over their heads,&uot; Davis said.

As for filling up the state’s training schools, Davis said those children who aren’t kept occupied by school are going to end up committing more serious crimes and sent there anyway.

And children who don’t get a good education will grow up to be adult criminals that overcrowd the state’s jails and prisons, he said. But it’s not always the child who is to blame for missing school. Ellen Edwards, Adams County school attendance officer, said she sometimes deals with parents who are guilty of &uot;educational neglect,&uot; a crime that can result in up to $1,000 in fines or even incarceration.

But most of the cases Edwards works with are older children, those in middle and high school, who skip school despite the efforts of their parents.

Edwards said she begins an investigation when a student has five or more unexcused absences from school. After contacting the child or the parent by phone, at home or at school, Edwards begins a monitoring period.

If the child continues to miss school and racks up 12 or more absences, Edwards files a petition with the Adams County Youth Court.

The judge can then place the child on probation and or order he or she to attend programs designed to keep them in school.

If the child does not return to school, sometimes even one unexcused absence later, he or she can be sent to training school on charges of contempt of court.

&uot;But that’s a last resort,&uot; Edwards said.