A Loudoun County couple whose children have often been late to school went to court Wednesday to be tried for a crime they contend doesn’t exist under Virginia law: too many tardies.
Judge James B. Robeson heard only a fraction of the expected witness testimony before deciding that the trial could not be concluded in one session. It will resume in Loudoun’s juvenile and domestic relations court May 3.
“This seems like it’s going to go on a lot longer than I thought,” Robeson said.
The defendants are Amy and Mark Denicore, each charged with three Class 3 misdemeanors and facing fines of up to $3,000.
Their three children were late to Waterford Elementary School about 30 times between September and mid-January, or about one in every three school days. Most of those tardies were for three minutes or less, according to school records.
The case, widely covered in the media, has sparked debate about whether the school system is overreacting over a minor offense or rightly clamping down on a habit that’s disruptive to teachers and other students.
In court Wednesday, Robeson — a retired Prince William County judge who agreed to hear the case after Loudoun’s own juvenile court judges recused themselves — allowed prosecutors to introduce additional allegations against the Denicores.
Now, the parents will not only have to answer for tardies from this school year but also for more than 30 tardies per child from the second semester of the 2010-11 school year and for absences from both years (about 13 for each child, including a five-day family vacation in October).
The Denicores, who are both trained as lawyers, requested that the judge throw the case out. They argued that whatever one’s view is of their parenting, the county has no authority under Virginia law to accuse them of a crime.
Besides, they said, they have solved the underlying problem — their kids haven’t been late to school since the court intervened in late January.
“We’ve reprioritized our children’s morning routines in order to achieve this understandable goal,” said Mark Denicore, acting as attorney for himself and his wife. “We’ve taken these allegations seriously.”
The couple has been charged under the state’s compulsory education law, 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 contend that this section of the code — which makes no mention of absences or tardies — is meant to ensure that parents enroll their kids. It’s not meant to deal with truancy, they say — and if it is, then it’s unconstitutionally vague.
“Is a parent committing a crime if their child is late to school one time, five times, 10 times, 20 times? It doesn’t say,” Mark Denicore said.
Prosecutor Alejandra Amato urged the judge to “look at the code holistically,” arguing that its “common plain meaning” is clear: Kids need to be in school when school is in session.
The judge said he would not decide whether to dismiss the case until hearing all the evidence, including testimony from about a half-dozen witnesses — Waterford Elementary’s principal, several teachers and attendance officer Lori Melcher.
There was only enough time Wednesday to hear from Melcher.
She said that before referring the Denicores to court, she sent two certified letters about the tardies and set up a meeting to discuss the problem. The Denicores refused to attend the meeting, she said.
At the judge’s request, Melcher confirmed that the three Denicore children have not been late since Jan. 27, a few days before their parents were summoned to court.
“They’ve been doing extremely well,” she said.