A newly instituted enforcement policy by the school district, to file misdemeanor charges late last year against parents whose children are too often absent, appears to be paying off.

Over the last month, the state attorney’s office has reached deferred prosecution agreements with seven parents charged with failure to require school attendance, a violation of Florida Statute 1003.26. A finding of guilt on this second-degree misdemeanor could result in a maximum of 60 days in jail and/or six months’ probation, with a maximum fine of $300.

Assistant State Attorney Shepard Bruner said he worked with the public defenders’ office, which represented all seven parents, to secure the agreements. Each calls for deferring prosecution for three months and eventually dropping the charges provided parents complete 15 hours of community service, through such agencies as churches, libraries or public works; the children attend school without unexcused absences; and the parents pay a $100 fee.

Agreeing to the terms were four parents charged Dec. 6, 2018 with the misdemeanor, Shellie Elaine Wilson, 40, Apalachicola; David Lee Wilson, 49, Apalachicola; Allen Blake Ray, 51, Carrabelle; and Jennifer Lynn Ray, 43, Carrabelle; Denise McCoy, 35, Carrabelle, who was charged on Dec. 8; James Marshall Garrett, 59, Eastpoint, charged on Dec. 14; and Kimberly J. Wheeler, 46, Carrabelle, charged Dec. 28.

“I have seen parents come into this office and be more actively involved in the process of their kids and attendance,” said Bruner. “I’m hoping this flips a light on for them.”

He said that because some of the parents had children who were being home-schooled, or they were at least age 16 and could have opted to withdraw from school if they wished, many parents did not fully understand the reporting requirements.

School district officials are not very sympathetic to that argument, though, arguing that parents are only dragged into a criminal proceeding if their child has repeatedly violated attendance rules, sometimes over the course of one school year to the next, and only after repeated discussions with school officials.

In the case of one student, the child missed 44.5 out of a possible 177 days of school during their freshman year, and then began the sophomore year by missing 14 days out of a possible 53.

In the case of another, the Franklin County student had missed more than 71 days, and attended only 37, after failing to register for classes in Liberty County.

In the matter of a third student, they had 62 unexcused absences over the past school year, and with another student, it was 102. One eighth grader last year missed 60 days out of a possible 177, and then began this school year by racking up 27 unexcused absences out of a possible 53 days of school.

“Students can’t learn if they’re not in school,” said Superintendent Traci Moses. “Our school grades won’t improve unless there’s a level of accountability.”

While there has been no change in state law, and no change to the district’s rules regarding attendance, it’s been a matter of enforcement, and Moses said she decided last year to crack down.

“The district has not forced compulsory school attendance in years,” she said. “You can't take parent to court unless you have proper documentation. When I realized people were not properly documenting and didn’t have procedures, I got the school board to assign that to someone. We realized it was so much work that our classroom teachers and administrators didn’t have the time for that.”

Virginia Tillman was designated as a teacher on special assignment to address the situation, and she has been working closely with the school’s child study team to avoid a criminal prosecution in county court, which goes beyond the traditional civil methods within the circuit court.

“She’s been very effective in building the relationships with parents,” said Moses.

School board attorney Donna Duncan has long worked with the non-criminal aspect of attendance enforcement, representing the district in circuit court cases that seek, through truancy petitions and other methods, to prompt parents to see to it their children attend school.

State law requires that a student with at least five unexcused absences within a month, or 10 unexcused absences within a three-month period, be referred to a child study team. That team consists of middle and high school guidance counselor Melanie Copeland and elementary guidance counselor Sherry Ware, school psychologist Kevin Hauesser, the child’s teacher, deans of students Donna Barber and Charles Syverson, and staffing specialist Lynn Clark.

The team meets with the parents and works to resolve the problem by enabling frequent attempts at communication between the teacher and family, or evaluating the student for alternative education programs. In some cases, attendance contracts are set up that spell out precisely what the parents and student must do to remain in good standing.

“They (parents) had them and didn’t follow them,” said Moses.

The superintendent said the team attempts to determine the causes of the absences, and see what it can do to assist what can be a frustrating aspect of being a responsible parent.

She said there have been cases where students were enrolled in homeschool because of medical issues or other concerns, and that district officials can track a student’s progress.

“When a parent is committed to homeschool their children, it can absolutely be successful but it takes commitment from that parent,” Moses said. “You have to have that parent participation to ensure participation.”

In her most recent report to the school board, Moses said that of the original eight cases referred for criminal prosecution, one was dismissed “for turning attendance around and (they) are doing very well.”

Of the other seven, two students transferred to other districts, and one withdrew in order to pursue their GED.

Of the others, one has returned to the alternative school and is adjusting to that school routine,’ one is in the process of resolving issues with the Department of Juvenile Justice and another continues to not attend school, Moses said.

She said the district is working with 48 students who have more than 15 days of unexcused absences, nearly all of whom are seniors.

In his report, Principal Michael Sneed said the district is continuing to press for a 95 percent attendance record, and that seventh graders have shown the highest, at more than 94 percent, and that the elementary grades post in the high 80 and low 90 percent range.

“We’re getting there but we have quite a ways to go,” he said.

“We’re going to aggressively attack the issue of non-attendance,” said Moses.