Charges dismissed in Loudoun school tardiness case


Amy Denicore helps her daughter Daisy, 7, with a school project in February. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

A judge agreed Thursday to dismiss charges in a Loudoun County case that had raised questions about whether parents should be criminally prosecuted for frequently failing to get their kids to school on time.

Amy and Mark Denicore were first summoned to court in February after their three elementary school children were late about 30 times during the fall semester, or about once every three school days. In most cases, the children were late three or fewer minutes.

The parents each were charged with three Class 3 misdemeanors and together faced fines of as much as $3,000.

County prosecutors decided to drop the case because the children were late only once during the second half of the year, according to the motion filed in Loudoun’s juvenile and domestic relations court.

“The Commonwealth’s goals of having the children be taken to school on time have been met,” the motion said.

The Denicores’ case, widely covered in the media, triggered debate about whether the school system overreacted to a minor offense or rightly cracked down on a habit that was disruptive to teachers and other students.

According to the Loudoun sheriff’s office, the Denicores are among dozens of Loudoun families who are summoned to court each year for attendance violations. Most other Washington area school systems deal with lateness internally and save court action for cases of chronic absences.

Mark Denicore, an attorney who represented himself and his wife in court, said they are pleased that their legal ordeal is over. But he said Judge James B. Robeson missed a chance to rule on a key legal question: Do too many tardies really constitute a violation of state law?

The prosecutor argued that the Denicores broke Virginia’s compulsory education law, section 22.1-254, which says parents have to send their kids to school “for the same number of days and hours per day” as public schools are in session.

The Denicores, in a motion to dismiss filed in February, argued that prosecutors had no authority to charge them under that law. It makes no mention of absences or tardies, they said, and is meant only to ensure that parents enroll kids in school.

Applied to tardiness, the Denicores said, the compulsory education law is unconstitutionally vague. Families don’t know when they’re violating the law — after a total of one hour of lateness? Ten hours?

Mark Denicore asked the judge Thursday to weigh in on the legal issue, saying it would “add some clarity, not only for our family but for the community.”

The judge declined, saying he hadn’t heard enough evidence to make a decision about the law.

“You’re sort of asking me to shoot off the hip here,” Robeson said. “I’m reluctant to do that.”

He instead accepted the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss.

When the trial opened in March, Robeson heard an hour and a half of arguments — only a fraction of the expected witness testimony — before concluding that the trial couldn’t be concluded in one session. It had been scheduled to resume Thursday.

Juvenile court is not a court of record, so Robeson’s opinion on the Denicores’ argument would not have created a precedent for judges elsewhere in the state. The judge urged Denicore to contact state delegates and senators about revising the law.

“Tell them you think it’s a little vague and maybe they could tighten it up,” Robeson said.

The proceedings lasted less than half an hour. Prosecutor Alejandra Amato said little, except to defend the case’s legal foundation by pointing out that judges in Loudoun juvenile court had repeatedly ruled, in similar cases, that the charges were valid.

In recent years, some national advocacy groups have pushed school systems and states to pay more attention to student attendance, pointing to chronic absence and excessive tardiness as problems that keep children from learning.

In 2006, the Virginia General Assembly considered legislation that would have explicitly directed schools and courts to intervene when students are chronically tardy.

The bill, which directed the state board of education to come up with a definition for “chronically tardy,” died in a House committee.

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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