For three years, Jessica Smith’s son had been begging her for a little brother.
Then the orphanage in Mongolia that had given her Ziggy called to tell her that it had another young boy for her. At the time, Ziggy, whose given name is Zorigt, had just started second grade at a D.C. public school.
Smith had to make a decision. Should she and Ziggy fly to Ulaanbaatar and adopt the child they’d been seeking to make their family three? Or should she avoid the risk of too many classroom absences and give up on the child for which they had been longing and waiting?
The decision she made landed Smith in D.C. Superior Court last month on a charge of criminal child neglect. In a city battling a sky-high truancy rate, her story illustrates the absurd rigidity of the rules, which forbid excusing more than 10 absences without a doctor’s note, a court note or an emergency.
Smith knew there was little chance she could travel to Mongolia, endure the rigorous, in-person vetting process, get all the adoption paperwork finished and make it back to Washington in fewer than 10 days. She’s a single mom with no family in the District, and she didn’t have anyone she could ask to care for Ziggy while she was gone.
She also knew that if she brought the first child she had adopted from that orphanage — now a bright, articulate, independent and bubbly hockey player beloved by his friends — she would have a better chance of being approved for a second child.
And Ziggy had been asking about his homeland. His mother thought three weeks in Mongolia would be a vastly richer experience for him than three weeks in second grade. He would learn so much from seeing people who look like him, hearing people who talk like the Mongolians he meets at local cultural gatherings, and eating the lamb and beef dumplings he had heard so much about. Plus, maintaining a connection to his heritage was part of that country’s adoption requirements.
Smith asked Peter Young, the principal of Brent Elementary School on Capitol Hill, if this trip could be considered an emergency, if she could put Ziggy on a study plan while they were gone. She exchanged e-mails with Young and another school administrator. Those e-mails led Smith to believe that she had received permission and that Ziggy’s absences would be excused.
She got a study plan, lugged along a six-inch-high pile of homework and even hired a tutor in Mongolia to keep Ziggy up on his studies.
But, according to D.C. Public Schools records, the principal signed a truancy referral less than two months after Ziggy, his new brother, Nergu, and Smith returned from Mongolia. That referral went to a school social worker and then to the courts.
Young wouldn’t comment on his e-mails with Smith, and DCPS spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said she wouldn’t comment on an individual case.
But what happened — according to the paper trail Smith gave me and four interviews with her — was that Smith took Ziggy to Mongolia, returned with a 2-year-old brother for him, and life went back to normal.
There were no calls or e-mails from the principal, Smith said, and Ziggy successfully finished second grade and started third grade in August. There were also no robocalls, no scary truancy letters or brochures about truancy law, like the kind that Avery Gagliano’s parents received when their middle-schooler missed class to perform at international piano competitions and prestigious festivals two years ago.
Avery, a 13-year-old piano prodigy, is now being home-schooled because her parents were so rattled by their brush with the truancy system.
Smith said the first sign that she had been ensnared by the city’s truancy law came just a few weeks ago, when someone knocked on her door and served her with a summons. She was ordered to appear in court on a criminal neglect charge because Ziggy was absent for 20 days nearly a year and a half ago.
Outraged, she contacted the school — and Young — demanding to know why this was happening.
In an e-mail to her, Young called it the result of “miscommunication. I am the person who, as the ‘personal institution’ last year, ultimately approved the days as ‘excused.’ My signing of the truancy referral must have been made initially when I communicated that the days would be ‘unexcused.’ I will work on my end to contribute to an amicable resolution in hopes that we are all able to move forward in a positive way from this.”
For Smith, the prospect of a court appearance on Jan. 27 was frightening. She texted me from court as she waited for her case to come up: “I didn’t realize this is a criminal charge. Even more scary. I can’t believe a principal would do this and not know the consequences.”
Adoptive parents are forever under a microscope. And a single mother who has adopted two orphans from a foreign country may be judged a little more harshly, she worried.
Smith, 48, recently left her job as a producer for National Public Radio to focus on her boys. Jail time would be disastrous.
When the judge took the bench and Smith approached with her packet of files, letters and paperwork, the two recognized each other from their sons’ sports teams.
The judge recused herself from the case, and Smith’s court date was rescheduled. She was assigned a public defender but also started shopping for a lawyer, dipping into the savings that was meant to carry her and the boys through her time at home with them.
Then, another surprise arrived several days ago, when Smith heard from her public defender. The case had been dismissed. Young had written a letter excusing the absences.
Victory? Not quite.
Like the Gaglianos, Smith said she has lost faith in the school system because of this episode. School officials had her child in class for a year and a half, knew her family well and still proceeded with a court referral. “It’s a slap in the face and it’s insulting,” she said.
DCPS stands by the way the case was handled.
“What I believe is most important to emphasize here is why these protocols exist in the first place, which is to protect children,” Salmanowitz said. “It is explicit for a reason — that reason being that no matter why the absence, someone is looking out to make sure the child is safe.”
For example, Salmanowitz said, what if a parent told the school that he or she would be taking a child on a trip to a foreign country?
“It is likely that is the case at face value,” she said. “It is also possible, however, that a parent could say they were going somewhere and instead put that child in harm’s way. We wouldn’t know unless we have a protocol that is thorough and explicit. We have to protect children. We do not have to protect or excuse a parent who wants their child to miss school.”
Yes, that sounds good. And it’s a great way to protect a child in real danger, such as Relisha Rudd.
Relisha was 8 when she was last seen nearly a year ago. Someone at her elementary school — also on Capitol Hill — finally realized she had been missing classes for about 30 days and sounded an alarm. It didn’t help that her mother had lied to the school about where Relisha was. But that protocol didn’t save the girl.
No one is trying to play down the truancy problem, either locally or nationally. Studies show that frequent absences lead to low test scores, high dropout rates and trouble. Between 5 million and 7.5 million kids miss about a month of school every year in America.
And the last thing we want to do is create a two-tiered system that gives the thumbs-up to affluent parents skipping school for long trips to Vail, Colo., when the skiing conditions are great, classes be darned.
But Ziggy’s and Avery’s cases aren’t exceptional. I’ve received dozens of calls and e-mails from parents whose kids also got caught in the truancy system because of legitimate absences. There were other horror stories about lawyers and court dates, too.
The problem isn’t going after chronic truancy. The problem is an absence of common sense when resources are heaped upon students who are doing just fine in school, whose parents are engaged and communicating with teachers while the kids who desperately need more support, more help and more attention — like Relisha — end up at the bottom of the pile, again.
That’s why this is absurd. And why badgering parents such as Smith and the Gaglianos is a waste of everyone’s time.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.