VALDOSTA -- After taking her children to school Wednesday, Emma Menezes returned home to find a Lowndes County Sheriff's Office deputy in her yard. He was there to serve her with an Unruly Petition, filed in the Juvenile Court of Lowndes County on Feb. 25.
Menezes discovered the legal matter pertained to her 15-year-old son, a Valdosta City School System middle grades student. According to the petition, he was in violation of Official Code of Georgia Annotated Section 15-11-2(12)(A), which states that "while subject to compulsory school attendance" he was "habitually and without justification truant from school."
Menezes read every word of the petition and supporting documentation, searching for answers. What she found only caused her to have more questions.
According to the complaint filed by the Valdosta City School System, Menezes was being summoned to court due to her son being absent from school nine days. After comparing the dates listed to those she had on file -- her son was hospitalized on three different occasions for treatment related to an ongoing condition -- she found they were not the same.
Menezes is scheduled to appear before Judge O. Wayne Ellerbee in Courtroom 2 of the Lowndes County Jail at 9 a.m. on Friday.
Under Georgia law, she could be found guilty of a misdemeanor and subject to a fine of up to $100 per offense, imprisonment of up to 30 days, community service, or any combination of these penalties.
"All this process is telling me is that you're not allowed to be sick in Valdosta, Georgia," she said. "This is a waste of my time. This is a waste of the court's time. This is a waste of taxpayer's money. I cannot believe no one from the school system contacted me about this first, especially if they thought things were so bad. It does not make sense."
Valdosta City School System Superintendent Sam Allen said not all parents summoned to juvenile court are found guilty of violating compulsory school attendance provisions. Having attended a few hearings personally, he said hospital paperwork and medical excuses are considered reasonable excuses for missing school, provided there are no other extenuating circumstances.
However, Brandi Brooks, a Lowndes County School System parent, disagrees. In a letter written to The Valdosta Daily Times recently, she said, "... no amount of doctors excuses or hospital stays will get you out of hot seat, so parents to save our children from foster care we send them to school no matter what and send apologies ahead of time to the children that our sick ones infect, and pray to the good Lord above that they don't try to call (the Department of Family and Children Services) on us for not taking care of our children and making sure they get proper medical attention."
Menezes said the problem lies in how truancy is defined. Most people, she said, understand truancy to be an unexcused absence, as Roget II: The New Thesaurus, Third Edition, states. She said she never dreamed it would include the hospitalized child.
The Georgia Department of Education's Policy Division believes "truancy is a significant problem in many school systems throughout the state. Almost a third of Georgia's middle and high school students missed 10 days or more in 2002."
Allen said Georgia legislators are requiring school systems to have a student attendance protocol -- procedures used to identify, report, investigate and prosecute alleged violations -- filed with the Georgia Department of Education by July 1.
The renewed focus on student attendance, Allen said, is in direct response to the requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, a federal school improvement initiative. This law requires a minimum 95 percent participation rate and a show of progress in terms of academic performance on state assessments -- like the Georgia Criterion Referenced Tests and Georgia High School Graduation Tests -- for all subgroups enrolled in a school and school system in order for that school and school system to make adequate yearly progress.
When determining whether or not a school and school system achieved adequate yearly progress, schools and school systems must show progress or meet a set standard on a second indicator as well. Typically, schools and school systems select attendance as that additional gauge.
What this means is that even if academic performance is high, schools and school systems may find themselves on a "needs improvement" list due to students missing too many days of school or failing to attend school on test days. That's how the No Child Left Behind Act is set up.
"If school systems are going to be held accountable for the educational performance of students, then we have to do something to get them in school so we can teach them everyday," Lowndes County School System Superintendent Steve Smith said recently. "We are going to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that happens."
According to the local attendance policy, which went into effect with the 2004-05 school year, students having more than five unexcused absences or more than 10 total absences -- unexcused and excused combined -- will be referred to the juvenile justice system.
Allen encouraged parents of any student who misses a day to send a written excuse immediately upon his or her return. Excused absences are those due to personal illness or when attendance in school endangers a student's health or the health of others; a serious illness or death in a student's immediate family necessitates absence from school; a court order or an order by a government agency, including preinduction physical examinations for service in the armed forces, mandates absence from school; observing religious holidays necessitates absence from school; conditions render attendance impossible or hazardous to student health or safety; local boards of education may allow a period not to exceed one day for registering to vote or voting in a public election.