11/29/2012 04:54 pm ET

Truancy In Rochester, New Hampshire, Could Lead To Criminal Charges For Parents

When students play hooky in Rochester, N.H., their parents could be the ones getting a tarnished permanent record.

Rochester police have announced that beginning Jan. 1, parents could face criminal charges or hefty fines of up to $1,000 if their children are chronically late or absent from school. The city will also offer a "diversion program" if parents do not want to pay the fine or take the case to court. The district and police department will be issuing the first summons to parents of children who have missed 15 days or more.

"If we get to the point where we don't have to charge anyone, that would be our ultimate goal -- that these parents are just getting their kids to school and that these kids are getting an education," Rochester Police Capt. Paul Toussaint told WGME.

The Foster's Daily Democrat reports that in just the first two and a half months of school, 531 of the district's 4,000 students have been absent 5 to 9.5 days. Another 108 have missed 10 to 14.5 days and 88 were absent more than 15 times.

Rochester Schools Superintendent Michael Hopkins tells Fox 25 that while parents play a large role in young students' tardiness and absence from school, high schoolers have been affected by the state's decision to keep students in school longer by raising the dropout age to 18.

"I really think it's just harder for everyone to realize how important it is to show up -- just like showing up for work," Hopkins told the station. "I think there's more absenteeism in work."

District and city officials stress that the program aims to raise awareness and improve student opportunities, not to penalize residents. Students who are absent quickly fall behind in their academics, and those who are chronically tardy slow down the entire class when teachers are forced to backtrack on lessons.

"We're trying to make a point," Rochester Police Det. Prosecutor Steve Gahan told Foster's Daily Democrat. "If this deterrent effect works and it minimizes bad behavior from other students, and bad parents, that's what we want. We don't want people to get criminal records. We don't want people to pay $1,000 fines."

Absent and truant students are beginning to cost schools so much that some have started to impose strict, and sometimes unforgiving, punitive measures for those who miss school. In perhaps one of the more extreme cases, 17-year-old honor student Diane Tran was forced to spend the night in jail in May after missing too many classes from Willis High School in Texas. The 11th-grader works two jobs to help support two siblings and is sometimes too tired to go to school.

Texas school districts are, by law, permitted to refer a student to juvenile court if he or she has amassed 10 or more unexcused absences within six months.

A law in Florida has parents facing up to two months in jail if their children are chronically absent. Under the law, parents can be charged with truancy if their child between the ages of 6 and 16 has accumulated 15 or more unexcused absences over a period of three months.

Truancy fines proposed in Los Angeles saw significant backlash after it was revealed students could be charged $250 to $800 for being late or absent.

Student attendance is critical to how a number of school districts receive state funding. Districts in Michigan, for example, urge students to show up to school on the two "count days" each year, on which the per-pupil funding allowance is determined from attendance.



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