COVID cautions land NC family with truancy charge

By: - June 28, 2022 12:25 pm
Morgan Perez and Jaxon (Courtesy photo)

Stanly County mom defends decision to temporarily homeschool son during spikes in the pandemic

In January, when the COVID positivity rate climbed to nearly 40% in Stanly County, northeast of Charlotte, Morgan Perez made the tough call to keep her son Jaxon home from school.

Perez, a former Stanly County Schools teacher, worried about her family’s health, particularly that of her dad who lives next door. He was being treated for lung cancer, and the family took extra care to keep him safe in a county where more than half of the residents were unvaccinated.

Stanly County Schools was one of several districts that briefly transitioned to remote learning in January after experiencing what school officials said was a “significant number of positive COVID-19 cases.”

The Perez family’s big fear was that Jaxon, a second-grade student at Endy Elementary School in Albemarle, would contract the virus at school and pass it on to his grandpa.
“That is the major reason why we took COVID so seriously,” Perez explained. “It would be devastating if my dad got COVID.”

Other than during the brief window in January, however, the school district did not offer a remote option for students.

The decision to homeschool Jaxon during  other time periods in the school year put the Perez family on the clock. Jaxon’s absences were not considered “excused.” Under state law, parents of students who accumulate more than 10 unexcused absences are at risk of being charged with truancy if they don’t make a good-faith effort to ensure their children attend school.

Jaxon racked up 16 unexcused absences at Endy Elementary between August 23, 2021, and January 14, 2022. Rachel M. Hartzog, a Stanly County Schools social worker, filed a truancy complaint against Perez on behalf of school principal Jodi Autry on Feb. 23, according to court documents Perez shared with Policy Watch.

Autry did not return calls or respond to emails from Policy Watch.

The criminal justice system and school attendance

It’s a misdemeanor in North Carolina for parents to allow children to accumulate 10 or more unexcused absences. It’s rare, but a parent can be fined, or even jailed, for violating the state’s compulsory attendance law.

Stanly County Schools issued a criminal court summons to Perez for violating the state’s compulsory attendance law. She had to hire a lawyer to help her respond to the summons; keeping Jaxon home cost Perez $750 in legal fees.

Endy Elementary Principal Jodi Autry

Perez said the school principal did not follow the district’s attendance and truancy process. The policy spells out the responsibilities of school administrators when students have three, six and 10 or more unexcused absences.

Perez said she never received a phone call about her son’s attendance as the policy requires. Nor was she asked to attend a conference to discuss the absences, Perez said, and did not hear from Hertzog, the school social worker, until she called to inform her that the district was filing a truancy complaint.

Perez’s case was eventually dismissed. But it raises questions about how public schools have handled truancy during the pandemic when chronic absenteeism has increased dramatically.

Chronic absenteeism is defined as missing at least 10% of days in a school year for any reason, including excused and unexcused absences. Students who miss a significant number of school days are at risk of academic failure.

In North Carolina, principals have a lot of discretion in filing truancy complaints. Perez said she believes a system of checks and balances is needed to ensure school leaders are making good decisions.

“There needs to be someone else double-checking and triple-checking to determine whether a criminal charge is necessary,” Perez said. “What I was told by the superintendent of Stanly County Schools is that it is 100% principal discretion. There’s nobody checking behind the principal.”

Selective enforcement?

Perez filed a public records request asking for the number of students in Stanly County Schools with 10 or more unexcused absences in the district’s elementary and middle schools.

According to data the district shared with her, there were 960 elementary and middle school students in the school district with 10 or more unexcused absences as of May 17, 2022, including 35 at Endy Elementary. But the records showed that only nine families were summoned to court for violating the compulsory attendance law. The Perez family was not included in those data because Jaxon had already withdrawn from school.

Perez wonders why she was among the parents charged with truancy. The stay-at-home mom told district officials about her plans to homeschool Jaxon until the COVID numbers declined. Perez said she stayed in contact with his teacher, whom she said provided schoolwork and did not object to the arrangement.

“It was totally manageable, which I expressed to the teacher and the principal,” Perez said. “If I didn’t feel like I could do it, then I would hire somebody or do something else to make sure he didn’t fall behind. I felt totally capable of teaching him the elementary school curriculum.”

There are times when parents should be charged with truancy, Perez acknowledged. “I do wonder how it helps the situation, but I do understand if there is a situation where there is neglect suspected or there is fear for the child’s well-being and they’ve tried to communicate with the parent and can’t get through,” Perez said. “A truancy charge should be a last resort.”

Marcus Pollard, staff attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, said parents concerned about the health of a child or family member should not be charged with truancy. Pollard said parents must have the final say when determining if it’s safe for children to go to school.

“The pandemic is something that none of us had experienced, so a lot of kids missed a lot of time,” Pollard said. “Filing a truancy complaint against a parent, that’s not reasonable. You can always talk and figure things out.”

Perez’s decision to keep Jaxon home also cost the youngster a slot in the school’s Dual Language Immersion (DLI) Program. Autry recommended that Jaxon be dismissed from the program due to excessive unexcused absences.

Perez was notified about the decision by letter in late January.

“As you can see, Jaxon is out of compliance with a high number of absences and is currently not attending school,” the letter read. “Therefore, Jaxson’s (sic) enrollment in the DLI program has been discontinued as of January 28, 2022.”

Autry said Jaxon would be provided with an opportunity to rejoin the program in the fall, according to a letter Perez shared with Policy Watch.

“Upon re-enrollment into Stanly County Schools, Jaxon will be provided with an opportunity to participate in re-entry assessments to measure bilingual proficiency and academic achievement,” Autry wrote. “If proficiency is deemed appropriate, an invitation to join the immersion program and an attendance contract will be offered.”

Meanwhile, Perez reported that Jaxon took several “assessments” last week to determine if he was academically fit to return to the program. He failed three of the four, she said.

Perez said school officials declined to share the assessments so that she could see what Jaxon got wrong.

“It’s all kind of fishy,” she said. “I don’t know to get answers to my questions. I’ve basically been ignored.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.