Florida Today – Under a new program, Brevard County parents whose students have missed too many days of school could find themselves in court.
Judge Christina Serrano said the program is the first of its kind in Brevard County. She reached out to the Brevard County School Board with the proposal for a truancy court to work with parents of students who have not been attending class when she first transferred to the juvenile division in 2021.
Brevard Public Schools have their own truancy specialists who work with families to identify barriers to attending schools, such as lack of clothing or transportation, financial difficulties or a need for tutoring. If district officials’ efforts to get kids back to school fail, BPS can file a truancy petition against their parents and send the family to Serrano’s court.
School Board Chair Misty Belford said truancy has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and some parents do not seem to understand that children are legally required to attend school in Florida unless they have officially dropped out or are being homeschooled.
“It’s a state statute, but you are required to have your child in school according to the state of Florida, and if they are not enrolled in school the sheriff will come and knock on your door,” Belford said.
Families summoned to truancy court for the first time can participate in a diversion program. If the student attends class every day with no unexcused absences for six weeks, the truancy petition is dismissed and the family does not need to report to court.
Students attending the truancy court must attend school without absences, attend weekly court dates, follow a 7 p.m. curfew, and comply with other terms of the court, such as not consuming drugs or alcohol, adhering to dress code and attending mental health treatment if required.
Parents could be held in contempt of the court, fined or ordered to do community service if their child does not comply. In the worst case scenarios, parents could be charged criminally.
“The goal is not to penalize anybody,” Serrano said. “Our goal is to encourage these children to go to school. There are a lot of kids that need that encouragement, their parents need the help and we’re here to help their parents.”
The students can earn points for attending school, extracurricular activities and mental health appointments, and for good behavior at school, court and home. The points can be spent on prizes such as gift cards, candy and extended curfew from the court.
The first five students reported to court on Jan. 20. Three of the students had already returned to school before their court date. Serrano said BPS is first issuing petitions for the worst truancy cases, and the five students who reported to court last Thursday were considered highest risk by the school district.
“Some had already repeated grades,” Serrano said. “To qualify for truancy court under the statute, you’d have to miss 15 days out of 90 day period. But to actually get to truancy court, these children, some have missed like a whole year. One child I think had only gone to school three days this past semester.”
Serrano said parents need to understand their responsibility to make sure their children attend school. If they are concerned about COVID-19 in schools, their children can attend school virtually, enroll in charter schools, and more.
“We have great education, especially here in Brevard County,” Serrano said. “And there’s so many options.”