25 FEBRUARY 2003

A get-tough policy on school attendance appears to have dramatically reduced absences.

Kids' truancy gets parents jailed

As the school year progressed, teachers saw less and less of Terri Hunt's 15-year-old son. He missed 15 days of school in October, 12 in November and six in December. He didn't show up at all in January and attended only one day in February.

Frustrated administrators met with Hunt to discuss the absences. When the situation didn't change, they called the State Attorney's Office. "She had a real 'I don't care' kind of attitude," said Assistant State Attorney Jeffery Smith. "There were a lot of promises made but no action."

So on Feb. 13, at Smith's urging, Circuit Judge Ric A. Howard found Hunt in contempt of court and sentenced her to 179 days in the Citrus County Jail, one day fewer than the maximum possible sentence.

She is scheduled to appear before County Judge Mark Yerman on Tuesday on charges of failing to compel her son to attend school, failing to appear in court and violation of probation.

Hunt is not the first Citrus County parent to land in jail because of a child's absences from school. The State Attorney's Office has been actively prosecuting parents for truancy since 1999. School administrators are crediting the hard-nosed approach with a dramatic decrease in the school system's truancy rate.

According to figures provided by Citrus County schools, the percentage of students absent 21 days or more from the county's high schools has dropped from about 25 percent in 1998-99 to about 8 percent in 2001-02.
There was a similar trend in the middle and elementary schools. The rate dropped from about 18 percent to about 5 percent among middle school students, and from 11 percent to 2 percent at the county's elementary schools.

"The attendance record of the Citrus County School System, according to state data, is one of the best in Florida," Renna S. Jablonskis, director of student services, wrote in a Feb. 2 letter to the State Attorney's Office. "This has a high impact on student learning and success."

Senior Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway said he expects an even larger drop in truancy following Hunt's punishment. "It seems like this happens every couple of years," he said. "The rate creeps back up until something like this occurs and it goes back down again."

Now other counties are looking to follow the example set by Citrus.

Currently, Citrus and Marion are the only two counties in the 5th Judicial Circuit that prosecute parents for failing to compel children to attend school, said Ridgway. But others, including Hernando County, have expressed interest in sending assistant state attorneys to truancy meetings and getting tough with parents who don't send their children to school.

"It's one of the cheapest and easiest ways to prevent crime," Ridgway said. "If you've got kids in school, they're not going to be committing crimes or getting into trouble."

The first Citrus woman to be jailed after her child missed too many days of school drew national media attention.
In February 1999, Circuit Judge Patricia Thomas sentenced Donna Collins to 48 hours in jail after her son missed 51 days of school. Collins blamed the absences on her new job and said her son had grown too wild and incorrigible for her to control. Thomas interrupted Collins with an admonishment, 'Ma'am, I'm sorry, but you gave birth to your son, and he's your responsibility." Like Hunt, Collins was jailed on a charge of contempt of court. Failure to compel a child to attend school is a separate charge. It is a second-degree misdemeanor, which is punishable by a maximum penalty of 60 days in jail.

Three weeks after the well-publicized court hearing, Citrus schools officials noted a jump in attendance. More than a dozen parents contacted the school system to inquire about truancies. But the problem didn't vanish completely, and the State Attorney's Office decided to take a more active role in squelching truancy.

After the Collins case, prosecutors began attending truancy arbitration hearings and threatening parents with the possibility of jail. Smith, who prosecutes juvenile cases for the county, said the mere mention of a jail sentence is enough to persuade most parents to ensure their children are attending school. Criminal charges, he said, are a final resort and reserved for only the most hard-core cases.

"The ones I feel sorry for are the single mothers who have jobs and are doing the best they can," Smith said. "This is not meant to target them."

But sometimes a jail sentence isn't enough. Both of Vicki Wingfield's parents were charged with failing to compel her to attend school in 2001, but the child still continued to be truant. Her mother, Paula Wingfield, was charged in February 2000. She pleaded no contest in April and was put on probation. But she violated her probation several times and was in and out of jail, court records showed. Vicki Wingfield, 17, still refused to attend school. According to court records, the girl was in school for only 15 days during the 2000-01 school year. So Paula Wingfield was charged again in February 2001. This time, her husband, Richard Wingfield, was asked to share the blame and was given 50 hours of community service to complete. The family moved to Kentucky in March 2001.

Smith said he ran into similar resistance in Hunt's case.

Hunt, 41, of Homosassa was asked repeatedly to meet with school officials, but her son's truancy continued. She was arrested on Dec. 4 on a charge of failing to compel her son to attend school. Hunt could not be reached for comment. Her lawyer, Assistant Public Defender Roy Stevenson, said he couldn't comment on the case. Hunt did not appear for a scheduled Jan. 9 court appearance and a warrant was issued for her arrest. She was picked up by the Citrus County Sheriff's Office on Feb. 3. Hunt was present at her son's Feb. 13 appearance in juvenile court. Angered by her lack of cooperation, Smith called witnesses who testified Hunt was aiding her son in his attempts to skip school. "Not only was she not helping, she went out of her way to make excuses for her son and to keep him out of school," Smith said.

Hunt has had legal troubles in the past. According to Florida Department of Law Enforcement records, she has been arrested six times since 1982. The charges include disturbing the peace, aggravated battery, resisting arrest and child neglect. Her trial on the truancy-related accusations is scheduled for March 17.

"We don't set out to put parents in jail," Smith said. "But we have to uphold the law."

By Carrie Johnson

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