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Truancy law could hit many parents

The morning I wrote this, my littlest daughter was luxuriating in bed, unwilling to face the reality of the impending school day.

"I don't want to go," she said, pulling the covers up over her head.

The dog days of summer have hit already, and school's not even out yet.

Fortunately, the court system has given me a clear and effective response.

"If you don't go to school, I will go to jail."

This is an exaggeration, of course, but close enough to the truth to send a chill through parents like me.

Of course, my statement could backfire under the circumstances that my children actually want to see me in the slammer.

The seriousness of school attendance was pounded into my brain and those of many other local parents after the story of the Bennett family made headlines late last month.

Their 6-year-old son, Nathan, had missed 15 days of school. Only five were considered unexcused under school system policy, and they were crucial.

The unexcused absences meant the Bennetts were being brought up on truancy charges.

Nathan had a history of health issues, and the first grader came down with mono last fall.

The Bennetts, like many parents, would take him to the doctor on some days when he felt ill but other times would simply keep him home.

If vomiting was involved, Nathan stayed out of school for 24 hours to avoid exposing other children to a possible bug.  

The Bennetts met with the principal and the school attendance officer. The parents gave doctor's notes and written excuses to the attendance officer during the meeting.

Parents are allowed to write their own excuses for a child for only five days a year under county school system policy.

They were more prepared with documentation than I would have been.

The five absences that remained unexcused were a big problem for the Bennetts. Circumstances made Beth Bennett feel as if she had to plead guilty to spare her family further problems.

She was sentenced 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.

Many parents who read about the situation identified with the plight of the Bennetts.

There but for the sake of record-keeping go I.

"How in the name of all that is holy can you treat every situation as equal?" Dwayne Bevins of Charleston wrote in the comments section of the story.

"What if a child is a straight-A student who makes the honor roll but misses 5 days? That child is 'branded' by this overzealous truancy system and the parents are forced into misdemeanor criminal charges by the court system."

Another reader, Kay May, commented, "I too understand that there must be laws in place.

"However, you cannot expect for a parent to send their child to school when their child is sick and expose others. I wouldn't want other mothers to do that to my children. But it's happening and this is why my children (who have lower immune systems because they are twins) are staying sick."

I totally understand.

It was a brutal winter in my house. Illness bounced from child to child like a germ-infested pingpong ball.

There was vomiting. There were fevers.

There was even something we self-diagnosed called Fifth Disease, common in kids between the ages of 5 and 15, that usually produces a distinctive red rash on the face that makes a child appear to have a "slapped cheek."

It was weird.

Whatever illness visited our house seemed to be replaced by a new illness the following week.

The two working parents who live here adjusted their schedules, alternated staying home, sprayed every surface with disinfectant, and hoped it would stop.

Sometimes we visited the doctor. Most of the time we just called the school to report the illness and absences.

It was horrible.

Like my kids, I'm looking forward to the freedom, fresh air and, hopefully, good health of summer.

And I'm glad I won't be spending it in handcuffs.

McElhinny is managing editor of the Daily Mail. Contact him at 304-348-1703 or bradmc@dailymail.com. Or follow him at www.Twitter.com/BradMcElhinny.


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