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Schools shouldn’t fine tardy students or their parents

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Money is not the answer to everything.

For example, consider the trend of schools forcing families to pay fines for various infractions such as not getting their children to class on time. It’s counterproductive, and the fines often hit people who can least afford them.

The practice is an idiotic attempt to change people’s behavior by making them pay. We keep hearing examples of this from around the country.

In Chicago, a charter school system fines students $5 if they end up in detention for piling up infractions that include chewing gum, having untied shoelaces or not looking a teacher in the eye. Children who get 12 detentions in a year must attend a behavior class in the summer that costs $140. Many of the students come from low-income families.

Then there is this nonsense of charging and even jailing parents whose kids are perpetually tardy. A judge in Virginia found a woman guilty of three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor because her children were frequently late for school.

The mother was arrested. She was ordered to pay a $1,000 fine for each of her three children, plus $3,000 in court costs. She said she has trouble getting her children to school on time because she suffers from attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Another Virginia couple faces trial this month on a misdemeanor charge because their three young children have been late arriving at their elementary school. Most of the time the children, who are good students, were tardy by just a few minutes, their father, Mark Denicore, said in an interview.

Denicore, who is an attorney, has filed a motion to dismiss the case, arguing that there is nothing in the state’s statutes that remotely supports making tardiness a crime. But if he and his wife lose the case, Denicore said, he will probably pull the children out of the public school for fear that future infractions could result in jail time for himself and his wife.

“I don’t think putting a financial burden on people, especially in this economy, is going to motivate people to do something or result in the intent they want,” Denicore said.

He understands the need to have his children on time for school, but does this mean their tardiness should be fined and criminalized?

No, it doesn’t.

The Los Angeles Municipal Code imposes a daytime curfew that gives police the power to detain and question youths under the age of 18 for being off school grounds during school hours. Police were ticketing tardy students, which can often lead to a $250 fine. Add court fees and the cost can jump to more than $1,000.

Some students were getting ticketed even while they were clearly on their way to school, said Manuel Criollo, lead organizer for the Los Angeles-based Community Rights Campaign, which fought to get rid of the ticketing for truancy.

Criollo said his organization interviewed students who said they would stay home rather than risk getting a ticket for being late. Parents who could least afford to miss days at work had to take time off to appear in court with their children. Some families said they had to cut back on food to pay the fines, Criollo said.

How is this a humane way to handle truancy?

Other young adults, who finally got their lives together, found that they couldn’t get a driver’s license because of unpaid truancy tickets. Without the ability to drive in California, they found it hard to get a job.

“Fine-based tickets have a real negative impact on family life,” Criollo said.

Criticism about the Los Angeles policy resulted in the City Council recently relaxing the punitive ticketing of students for tardiness and truancy, eliminating the fines for first and second offenses. As an alternative to the tickets, students will be given community service or directed to counseling. A third offense can still result in a fine, but it’s capped at $20.

Fining families is a dreadfully draconian solution. I know that local jurisdictions are trying their best to hold parents accountable, but this is overreach. Besides, is there a real cause-and-effect relationship here? Does being late to school a lot mean that a kid is going to flunk out or become a social deviant? If not, then why impose such an unreasonable monetary penalty for a non-criminal offense?

Levying fines doesn’t guarantee that systems will get the results they want. In the case of the $250 tickets in Los Angeles, it had the opposite outcome. Children stayed home or became more hostile toward the school system.

Where’s the grace in how we are treating these issues? Where’s the common sense?

Readers can write to Michelle Singletary at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Her e-mail address is singletarym@washpost.com. Questions are welcomed, but because of the volume of mail, personal responses may not be possible. For previous Color of Money columns, go to postbusiness.com.

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