The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 5, 2013

Details of recent truancy hearings

BECKLEY — Listed below are details of recent truancy hearings. The names have been withheld for privacy reasons.

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E.D. is prone to panic attacks, and she’s been diagnosed with Graves’ disease, a thyroid condition that has made her “pass out” several times.

Outside Raleigh County Circuit Judge John Hutchison’s courtroom on the afternoon of Oct. 21, the Beckley woman was scared.

Accompanied by her husband, her stepdad and her mother-in-law, she is the mother of two daughters, 12 and 5, and two sons, 10 and 8.

She was one of around 10 parents who appeared recently before Hutchison for violating the new county truancy policy.

Prior to the hearing, she said she’s scared.

“This is my first time, ever,” she said of the truancy charge. “I do agree with the system; it’s important for the kids to be in school. But we did try to get help.”

She has lived with her mother-in-law for the past 11 years.

Over the summer, the family was evicted from their trailer, which had caught on fire twice, she said.

“It’s really dangerous, and we’ve been paying the rent and everything,” she said. “But we were homeless.”

E.D., her husband and their four children moved in with her mom and stepdad.

They tried to get the kids in school, but since the grandparents’ rent was paid through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, there were rules about how long the family could stay.

The family needed an official address in order to get the kids enrolled at any of the county schools, but “the manager of the apartments wouldn’t let us (use the apartment as our official residence) because she said that would establish residency (at the apartment),” E.D. explained.

She added that she tried to move her family into a homeless shelter to gain an official address and get the kids enrolled at school, but there wasn’t enough room there.

During this time, the kids missed school, the mother admitted.

The family reportedly called administrators at the schools to notify them that they couldn’t get the kids officially enrolled, but, she charged, the administrators had apparently not kept a record of the conversations.

E.D. — still grieving, she said, from the death of her brother last October — called a Board of Education official to discuss her predicament. “I explained it, and his exact words was he was sorry we were going through this, and he hopes and prays we find something so that these kids could be in school,” she recalled.

Several weeks ago, the family settled into a home in Beckley with the other set of grandparents.

“To me, it’s important for my kids to get an education,” E.D. said.

“I want them to have a good education and get careers and maybe have scholarships,” she added. “I feel like it wasn’t my fault.”

In the courtroom, the woman was one of approximately 10 parents who were called to answer for misdemeanor charges concerning their children’s truancy under the new Raleigh truancy policy.

Only five unexcused absences are allowed per semester, and the excuses must be handed in to school officials within 48 hours of the absence.

The new policy involves the Raleigh Sheriff’s Department, Department of Health and Human Resources, Raleigh Prosecutor’s Office, Raleigh Juvenile Probation office, and the Raleigh public defender’s office.

The goal is to reduce the number of truant students and to get students returned to school as quickly as possible. E.D. took the stand by herself and heard Hutchison read that two of her children had missed 18 and 19 days of school respectively.

Neither E.D. nor T.D. mentioned in court that they’d been homeless and had transportation issues.

Hutchison explained to E.D. that since this is her first offense, there is no jail time.

“There is a heavy fine but no jail time,” he added. “You are not entitled to have the state appoint you a lawyer, but you may have one at your own expense.”

She signed a bond form and, like every other parent — all of them mothers, except for a father who didn’t show — went to have a probation officer explain truancy rules and regulations.

All of the parents’ court dates were set for January 2014.

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Another mother told the judge that when she orders her 17-year-old son to go to school, he “cusses” her.

“He’s really mean to me,” she said. “He won’t go.”

His father had possibly taken him to the high school to withdraw from school, she added, but she wasn’t sure.

“If he has officially and legally withdrawn ... I’ll dismiss this case,” said Hutchison. “You have to understand, you’re looking at a pretty big fine if he doesn’t get there (to withdraw) ... and if he keeps not going, it could result in one or both of his parents going to jail,” added the judge. “He might need to know that.”

“I’ve told him that,” the mother replied. “All he does is cuss me.”

Hutchison explained during the proceedings that it is legal for 17-year-olds to voluntarily drop out of school.

Once a juvenile petition for truancy is issued, however, Hutchison said he would require a student to stay in school, regardless of any previous intent to withdraw.

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A third mother, said the juvenile petitions issued by the court have placed an unfair burden on her family.

“Where they put the kids on probation, it’s like they’re a criminal,” the mom said. “They can’t even go hunting.

“They have to be in by 8 p.m.; we have to know where they are at all times,” she said. “My daughter is 17 years old. She has a baby. Come on!”

The woman said she’s unable to drive her children from her home to the bus stop (she said it’s seven-tenths of a mile, but a court official said it was two-tenths of a mile) because she uses pain medication due to a car accident last year and is fearful of driving while using it. Her husband is also disabled and unable to help, she added.

She doesn’t trust her kids to walk by themselves because she said her daughter was the victim of a sexual assault in the area a few years ago.

She said she was unsure at the beginning of the year where her daughter, formerly an alternative school student, would attend.

In addition, she was often unable to drive due to medical reasons, she added.

She said she presented doctor’s excuses at the high school from her own doctor, explaining that she was unable to drive her kids to school. Because the notes were identical except in date to excuses her doctor had written last year, the woman said, school administrators refused to accept them. She had her doctor rewrite the excuses, she said.

She has also filed paperwork to homeschool her children.

After the homeschool paperwork had been filed, but before her request was granted or denied by school administrators, she reported, a deputy served her a notice that her kids were truant.

At the hearing, Hutchison told the woman that her daughter was now on probation and couldn’t quit school and that she could not homeschool.

“This is ridiculous, for him to tell me I can’t homeschool my kids just because it came to a hearing before anybody could give me an answer about (the homeschool),” she said after the hearing.

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Only two juveniles — sisters, ages 12 and 17 — were in the courtroom during the hearings.

Their mother told the judge that the girls wouldn’t listen to her, that her older daughter planned to quit school and that the younger daughter had started to refuse to go to school.

The 17-year-old has missed 40 days this year, while the 12-year-old has missed 23, Raleigh Schools Attendance Director Millard Frances told the court.

The bailiff slipped Hutchison a note, and Hutchison looked out at the girls and caught them quietly laughing at their mother’s testimony.

“I could file a juvenile petition against (the 17-year-old),” Hutchison said. “That would take away her options, because if I file and get served a juvenile petition, I won’t let her withdraw, and if she refuses to go to school, I’ll place her in a secure environment where I can guarantee she will go to school.

“She’s placing her mother in jeopardy of potentially serving some jail time, but she’s also placing herself in jeopardy of me removing her from the home and placing her in a facility that can control her behavior,” Hutchison said of the 12-year-old.

Outside the courtroom, the mother said she didn’t believe breaking up a family to make the children attend school is a solution to the problem.

“I don’t want to be separated from them, but I don’t know what to do because they don’t give you an option,” said the mother. “(The school) tells you how many excuses you can write for them.

“They don’t let you write excuses after five,” she said. “These kids took excuses, but they weren’t accepted because after five, they’re not accepted.

“They’re better off at home,” she said. “If you put them in a facility, they’re just going to get worse.”

The girls said they are living with their aunt, due to a struggle in their family with their mother. The 17-year-old said she’d been sexually harassed and bullied at school and is dealing with “severe, diagnosed depression” that makes her anxious about going to school.

“I’ve been sexually harassed, I’ve been bullied, I’ve been touched by boys,” she described.

The girls’ aunt tearfully collapsed in the hallway, and an officer helped her to her feet and escorted her to the elevator.

The girls said nobody from DHHR had contacted them about services for their family, but Hutchison later stated that DHHR representatives would be getting in touch with each family.

Of the approximately 10 parents on the docket, three did not show for the hearing. Hutchison ordered limited court orders for daytime pick-up on two parents.

A third parent was kept out of court due to “extenuating circumstances.”

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