Petula Dvorak
Petula Dvorak
Columnist

When it comes to tardiness, shouldn’t the punishment fit the crime?

( Astrid Riecken / For The Washington Post ) - Amy Denicore rehearses a school project with her daughter Daisy, 7, one extra task of the many tasks she has to finish while getting her three children ready for school before dropping them off at school on Aug. 3.

I was late to my wedding.

I was late delivering the carpool kids to school Monday morning. I was late filing this column. And no matter how hard I try, I will likely be late to my parent-teacher conference Monday afternoon. I am perpetually fighting the tardy gene.

But I’ve never been hauled into criminal court because of it. And that’s why I found it so outrageous to be going to a Leesburg courtroom Monday with a couple of Loudoun County parents who were summoned there on criminal charges because their kids are habitually late to school.

(Amy and Mark Denicore were on time to their hearing. I was, of course, late.)

The Denicores got a court summons and now have a March 14 trial date set because they often get their three kids to school about three minutes late.

I get it. That’s how I live, no matter how hard I try to be on time.

Good thing I don’t live in Virginia, because if that’s how they do things, every car driving 56 mph on the interstate should get pulled over, every lane merge without a signal should be ticketed, and every person with the hubris to rip that stupid tag off a pillow or mattress should be hauled to jail.

Parents in court on criminal charges because of tardy slips? Absurd. And don’t go there with lectures about what slackers the Denicores are.

Say what you want (and hundreds of commenters did after reading Emma Brown’s story on the case) about the virtues of promptness.

Congratulate yourself for your (likely clouded) memory of always getting your kids to class on time, for never being late to a meeting and for being better than the rest of us.

Granted, the Denicores were late a lot. The count was about 30 times this school year. They’ve got three kids, so the moment one is late, all of them are late.

And they’re trying to get better, they assured me. They are setting clocks back, getting ready the night before, adjusting their schedules. (I know, I’ve tried all those tricks myself.) They are not defending tardiness.

But they are speaking out about how wildly inappropriate it is to make this kind of petty tardiness a criminal case.

The children have missed about an hour of school, total, because of tardiness. Compare that to a kid who leaves early for a swim lesson or misses several days to go on a family vacation, Mark Denicore says. No court date for doing that.

The Denicores showed me their list of tardy slips. The kids are rarely more than three minutes late. Sometimes, the tardy slip actually says “Zero” minutes late. Seriously.

How can you be zero minutes late?

Are the Denicores asking for special treatment, or the deployment of some common sense?

It’s not just a matter of defending themselves, or arguing for the right to be late.

There is no state statute that applies to tardiness. There is one that has to do with attendance, and that’s the charge they are facing — the state’s compulsory education law, Sections 22.1-254, which says parents have to send their kids to school “for the same number of days and hours per day” as school is in session.

But the Denicores point is that this zero-tolerance crackdown is happening across the school system, and probably across the county.

Take the case of Maureen Blake, a single mom who was arrested last month after her second case of a tardy charge.

Blake was hit with “contributing to the delinquency of her minor children by causing them to be habitually late to school,” according to court documents.

She’s looking at a possible 12-month jail sentence. Her kid was tardy 10 times, Mark Denicore said.

This helps her child how?

Different schools deal with tardiness in different ways.

At my younger son’s D.C. public school, the classroom door closes at the start of school and I have to sit outside with him for 35 minutes, even if I was just 30 seconds late.

On the three occasions we were late because of unavoidable schedule conflicts this year, my son peeked into the window, sang along with the morning greeting songs and cried when he tried to catch his teachers’ eyes, and they wouldn’t let him in.

Yeah, harsh.

But guess what? As much as I hate their policy, they didn’t haul me into court to get us to school on time. The punishment actually fit the offense.

Dvorak will respond to your comments about this column at noon Friday at washingtonpost.com/dvorak. You can also see previous columns there.

 
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