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Parents hope to get a word in after son's truancy flap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Beth Bennett had her day in court. She just wishes she could have told the judge her story before her sentence was handed down.

The assistant prosecutor who handled the case said she was given the opportunity to tell her side of the story.

Beth, 30, and her husband, Justin, 31, went to Kanawha Circuit Court last week not knowing what to expect.

Their 6-year-old son, Nathan, had missed 15 days of school, but only five were considered unexcused under school system policy, and they were being brought up on truancy charges.

They were shocked when they received the notices, one addressed to each of them, from the court. The notices arrived at their St. Albans area home on April 10.

Beth called Justin at the Capitol, where he works in telecommunications for the state Division of Protective Services. Justin notified his superior officer of the matter, fearing he would get in trouble if he did not.

She said they went to Anne Bailey Elementary School the next day to speak to Principal Rob Somerville and attendance officer Jennifer Lilly, but neither was at the school that day. They made an appointment and met with Somerville and Lilly on April 18.

Somerville told them he was as shocked as they were.

Lilly explained that Nathan had missed 15.5 days of school and went over the missing notes and excuses. The parents gave doctor's notes and written excuses to the attendance officer during the meeting.

Beth said parents are allowed to write excuses for a child for only five days a year under county school system policy. Somerville confirmed that.

There is no limit on doctor's notes, he said.

Nathan was often sick last fall, Beth said.

Nathan is no stranger to tests and conditions with names longer than his own. When he was an infant, his pediatricians were concerned about the large size of his head. A CT scan showed he had craniosynostosis, a condition that causes the infant's skull to stop growing prematurely, preventing the brain from growing properly.

It was surgically corrected when he was 10 months old. He had plastic surgery to repair the scarring when he was 5.

This past fall Nathan, a first-grader, was going to bed earlier in the evening than normal, sometimes right after dinner.

The parents took Nathan to the hospital for tests in November. It was then that they found out he had mononucleosis, or mono as it is commonly known.

Beth said before his diagnosis she would take him to the doctor on some days when he felt ill but other times she would simply keep him home.

If vomiting was involved, she kept him out of school for 24 hours because she thought she was supposed to. That was to avoid exposing other children to a possible bug.  

The principal was aware of Nathan's health problems.  

"He had some sickness and they had it documented," Somerville said. "I was surprised, to be quite honest."

He wrote a letter to the court to that effect, he said. The letter also mentioned how well Nathan performs in class and how active his parents are at the school.

Beth said she and her husband are law-abiding citizens who are involved in their sons' lives. They also have a 2-year-old.

They work with Nathan on his homework and pick up schoolwork when he misses class. They consider him an excellent student.

If their son's teacher at Anne Bailey Elementary School mentions that the classroom is low on crayons, they send Nathan to school with a backpack full for the whole class.

The school worked with her to get the absences down to five unexcused days.

"(Lilly) said we have it down to five, but you still have to go to court because you've received a summons," Beth said. "She told us not to worry and to try not to stress out about it."

They went, without a lawyer, to the Judicial Annex last Wednesday.

Lilly was at the courthouse as well and spoke to Assistant Prosecutor Fred Giggenbach in the hallway outside Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom's courtroom, where the proceedings would take place.

The attendance officer told Giggenbach that Nathan had five unexcused absences.

"He said if it was under four he would dismiss it, but since it's five he has to treat them like everyone else," Beth said.

She said Giggenbach then told her that if either she or her husband pleaded guilty, the charges against the other would be dismissed. She said they were told that if they both pleaded not guilty, Giggenbach would put witnesses on the stand to prove their child's absences.

Beth pleaded guilty, she said, to avoid endangering her husband's job.

"When given the choice of my family getting a paycheck or not, I did what I could do to make sure we had health insurance and a paycheck," she said.

She said the judge asked for her name and plea and then asked how many days her son had missed. She told him five, and then Bloom told her that was the "magic number" they were looking for.

She said Bloom asked her why Nathan had missed so many days and she responded that it was due to illness, but before she could take a breath she was being sentenced.

Bloom sentenced her to five days of community service at the school, a $50 fine plus court costs and 60 days of probation, the standard for those guilty of first-offense truancy.

Beth also now has a misdemeanor on her permanent record.

"We understand the seriousness of this, and we know there have to be laws in place," the mother said. "We just feel like our voice wasn't heard."

Giggenbach said the couple was given an opportunity to speak their piece before and during their appearance at court but did not.

"Before pleading guilty, Mrs. Bennett, along with every other parent, was afforded the opportunity to provide valid excuses reducing the absences below the legal limit," Giggenbach said in a written statement.

"She failed to do so. Mrs. Bennett was also afforded the right to one, hire an attorney or two, have a hearing to dispute the absences.

"She chose to plead guilty, in open court, under oath with signed verified plea documents. Her husband's case was dismissed per usual protocol. She was treated fairly and evenly."

The Bennetts said they are seeking an attorney and hope to have her plea set aside, in hopes of getting the misdemeanor expunged.

Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at ashley.craig@dailymail.com or 304-348-4850.

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