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Assistant prosecutor chides parents as truancy cases brought before judge

Parents brought before a Kanawha Circuit judge on truancy charges were told the situation could have been headed off much sooner if they had heeded warnings.

Assistant Prosecutor Fred Giggenbach brought 25 truancy cases before Judge Duke Bloom this week. He explained to those who attended the hearing that the state gives parents a chance to dispute or provide written excuses before charges are filed.

"You are here because you received two notices to attend a mandatory meeting with a prosecutor and the attendance director," Giggenbach said. "These are steps in the process to keep you from coming to court like this to face a judge."

Once in court, the defendants are given the opportunity to confer with the school attendance director just prior to their hearing to provide the excuses that would dismiss the case.

Giggenbach continued, "The goal is not to punish you or put you in jail. It's simply to get children in school.

"Studies show that children 10 or younger who do not go to school repeatedly are more likely to commit crime, not graduate and have social issues. They not only miss curriculum, they miss social time, exercise and nutrition."

Some parents who were charged did not even make it to the hearing before Bloom.

The judge issued warrants for the arrest of the 10 parents who did not show up.

Warrants were issued for Melinda A. Miller, Michael McHenry, Amanda Pomeroy, Misty Green, Cassandra Hughes, Melissa Tate, Kristen Beane, Jessica M. Derrix, Kimberly Means and Jessica Berry.

Those parents are charged with first-offense truancy because their children had five or more unexcused absences from school. School officials send two notices to parents in those instances before filing complaints with the Kanawha prosecutor.

Five other parents pleaded guilty to the offense and were sentenced to fines and court costs of $210.80, 90 days of probation and five days of community service.

They were Jessica Abshire, Pamela McClanahan, Edward Skaggs, Ashley Gilliam and Leslie Lightner.

"Get your children to school," Bloom told them. "I don't want to see you here again."  

A second-offense truancy charge carries a possible jail sentence. Bloom has jailed some parents.

Two parents who disputed the charges pleaded not guilty and opted for bench trials.

Margaret Heck, whose 6year-old child missed 17 days at Chamberlain Elementary, said her daughter's asthma, and sometimes the mother's own illness, were the reasons for absences.

Bloom asked Heck to return to court June 5 with medical documentation about her daughter's illness before he decides her case.

Katherine George pleaded not guilty concerning her child's 32 1/2 unexcused absences at Malden Elementary. She told the judge her child was autistic and she often had to fight with her to get her to school.

"I've always been a good mother," George said. "I work a lot to take care of them. But I'm not innocent because I haven't done 100 percent."

Bloom found George guilty and imposed the same sentence he did on the other parents who pleaded guilty Wednesday. He told her to do a better job of getting her child to school.

A handful of the other cases were continued for various reasons, including the need to gather more documentation.

Another parent recently charged with truancy has appealed her case to the state Supreme Court.

Beth Bennett of St. Albans pleaded guilty last month but later asked that her plea be withdrawn. Her request for a new trial was denied by Bloom.

Bennett's first-grade son had five unexcused absences at Anne Bailey Elementary. His parents said those missed days, and others that they provided excuses for, were due to illness.

She believes she didn't have sufficient opportunity to explain her son's absences in court and said he has been honored as a "super student" in his school. Bennett was critical of the charges levied against her.

Contact writer Cheryl Caswell at cherylc@dailymail.com or 304-348-4832.

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