Parents say Loudoun officials reaching too far to stop school tardies

February 4, 2012

Shoes get lost, knees get scraped, backpacks get spilled. So on some days, members of the Denicore family get to school a minute or two late.

That’s not ideal, Mark and Amy Denicore admit. But, they wonder, is it a crime?

Last Tuesday evening, as the Denicore kids sat down to do homework, a Loudoun County sheriff’s deputy appeared on their doorstep, court summons in hand. The charge: Too many school tardies, a Class 3 misdemeanor. Arraignment is scheduled for Monday morning.

“This is against the peace and dignity of the Commonwealth of the Virginia,” the summons says.

Mark Denicore has a different take: “This is the nanny state gone wild.”

Virginia law clearly spells out a school system’s responsibility when a child is chronically absent. But it doesn’t explicitly deal with tardiness.

The Denicores are among a growing number of Loudoun parents who argue that county bureaucrats have reached beyond the scope of state statutes — not to mention common sense — in their effort to rein in late arrivals.

Loudoun officials, meanwhile, say they’re simply doing what’s necessary to protect kids.

“It’s not just trying to meddle in someone’s affairs or dictate how someone raises their child,” said Wayde Byard, spokesman for Loudoun County Public Schools. “It’s a child welfare issue, basically.”

The school system isn’t cracking down on attendance, Byard said — just following its long-standing policies. According to the sheriff’s office, the Denicores are among dozens of Loudoun families who are summoned to court each year for attendance violations. Most other area school systems deal with lateness internally and save court action for cases of chronic absences.

Scrambling to beat the bell

On a recent weekday, the three Denicore kids — ages 6, 7 and 9 — finished breakfast as their 13-year-old doe-eyed dog padded around the house.

Amy Denicore shepherds the kids to school by herself each morning after her husband leaves for an early commute to the District, where the lawyer and engineer has his own firm. Mark Denicore also runs a charity for Haitian earthquake victims that he founded.

As mom braided Daisy’s hair and helped Dahlia practice spelling words for the day’s coming quiz, Tucker entertained himself with a remote-control helicopter.

They then piled into the family minivan at 7:41 for a two-minute trip to Waterford Elementary, where — on this day — they beat the 7:50 bell.

“Punctuality is important, but it’s not the end-all be-all,” said Amy Denicore, a room mother and regular volunteer at the school. “It’s not my goal that the kids are late, but my goal is that they arrive to school well-fed, ready to learn and comfortable in their skin.”

It seems there’s often a last-minute delay that costs them a few crucial minutes in the morning — one child dallies over breakfast, another goes off to brush her teeth and disappears.

Getting the kids up 15 minutes earlier and setting the house clocks ahead hasn’t helped much. The Denicores have been been late almost 30 times since September, or about one out of every three school days. Most of those tardies were for three minutes or less, according to school records.

The kids’ academics don’t appear to be suffering. Their report cards, which arrived the day after the court summons, are glowing. “A wonderful student admired by her peers,” reads one. “You should be very proud,” reads another.

The report cards also include a box that teachers can check to indicate that “learning may have been affected by tardies.” None of the Denicores’ boxes were checked.

“If they were doing poorly in school or if they were disruptive in school and weren’t trying, that would be different,” Amy Denicore said. “When you have kids who have been doing beautifully in school and they’re suddenly being labeled truant — it seems like a real disconnect.”

School officials said tardiness affects more than the latecomer — it wastes time for the whole class. “Everything kind of stops for a few minutes and you have to reacclimate students into the classroom activities. That’s a problem,” said Anne Lewis, Loudoun’s director of student services.

Principals are responsible for referring families to one of the county’s five truancy officers. The school system declined to make Waterford’s principal available for an interview, but said she was adhering to the requirement to take action after five unexcused absences or a consistent pattern of tardies.

“There’s some leeway in terms of how many tardies, but it has to be a good number,” Lewis said.

If the parents aren’t cooperative with the truancy officer, they’re referred to the county’s juvenile and domestic relations district court. The sheriff’s office serves attendance-related court summons to an average of two or three parents per month, according to a spokesman.

A Class 3 misdemeanor can bring a fine of up to $500, a fee that’s often suspended and ultimately forgiven as long as the parents improve their children’s attendance.

Scaling back

Other times, the situation escalates. On Jan. 21, Loudoun mother Maureen Blake was arrested and charged with “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children by causing them to be habitually late to school,” according to court documents.

This was her second go-round in the courts for tardiness, she said, and now she faces a Class 1 misdemeanor that can carry a maximum of 12 months in jail.

Across the country, some states and local jurisdictions have begun to move away from a punitive approach to enforcing attendance rules. Police in Los Angeles had been issuing $250 truancy tickets to tardy students until recent months, when the policy was scaled back in response to an uprising by parents and activists.

“Punitive discipline leads to a higher dropout rate, more hostility in schools, it leads to kids disengaging from learning and it alienates parents,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights organization that has advocated against harsh school discipline. “It is counter to everything that we know should be done.”

Other states have doubled down. An unusually strong Nebraska law passed in 2010 requires schools to refer students to the county attorney general after 20 absences, whether they’re excused or unexcused. The state commissioner of education, Roger Breed, has hailed the measure for shrinking the number of children who are chronically absent.

In Loudoun, some parents said the school system might accomplish more — with fewer dollars — by adopting a softer approach.

Ed Croft, Parent Teacher Organization treasurer at Waterford, received a certified letter in November from a county truancy officer warning of possible legal consequences. His first-grade son had been tardy 11 times, he said — usually by only a few minutes.

He said he and his wife have been more careful since then, but they’re still not perfect. They overslept last week and their son was late to school — and Croft worries that at some point, another tardy will trigger a court referral.

“If they’re going after the Denicores, they could easily go after me,” Croft said. “They’re just casting a wide net.”

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