D.C. Council member David A. Catania proposed legislation Tuesday that would change standards for when parents can be held criminally liable if their children miss too many school days.
Under the proposal, the Office of the Attorney General would be required to prosecute parents if their child has 20 or more unexcused absences in a year. Four of 13 council members have co-sponsored the plan.
The parent would receive written warnings from both the attorney general and Child and Family Services when their child reaches 10 unexcused absences.
If charges were brought, the parent would be sentenced to parenting classes or community service at their child’s school. Parents would not be subject to jail time unless they failed to complete their classes or service time.
“It is important that we call this chronic truancy what it is, child abuse,” Catania said. “We have a crisis in our city.”
District law allows for charges against parents of elementary school students if their children have two or more unexcused absences in a month. But the law, which calls for up to 5 days in jail and a $100 fine, is rarely enforced, Catania said.
Catania, the new chairman of the council’s education committee, said he wants to rewrite the law to “bring more common sense” to the process while also broadening its reach to include teenagers.
“We have a lot of children age 13 to 17 who have fallen through the cracks,” Catania said.
Noting a graduation rate of 59 percent in D.C. public schools, Catania said that on average about 3,000 students miss at least a month of school each year. At Anacostia High School in Southeast, 45 percent of students missed 21 days or more of school last year, he added.
But Catania’s proposal could generate debate in a city where child-rearing responsibilities can be complicated and spread across an extended family.
Some parents work multiple jobs to support their families, making it difficult for them to keep track school attendance. Students also can reside with another family member, though legal custody remains with a parent.
The bill, which the council could vote on later this year, includes a provision that allows a parent of a teenager to provide an “affirmative defense” that they have done “everything they can to be a good parent,” Catania said.
In that instance, instead of prosecution, the case would be referred to Family Court for possible “Child in Need of Supervision” proceedings. The court and Child and Family Services Agency (CSFA) would then work with both the parents and the student to try to modify behavior, Catania said.
“This bill is not intended to put parents or guardians in jail,” Catania said. “It’s intended to get their attention.”
Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1), chairman of the Human Services Committee, said he would scrutinize the bill to examine whether CSFA is equipped to handle the increased workload.
“The implementation of all of this is on CSFA,” Graham said. “We have to understand all of the impacts.”
The bill is co-sponsored by Council members David Grosso (I-At large), Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7), Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), and Jack Evans (D-Ward 2).
But Grosso said he also wants the council to scrutinize D.C. Department of Education expulsion and suspension procedures, fearing that too many students are being kicked out of school.
“We need to discuss both issues at the same time,” Grosso said.