Skipping school could lead to neglect charges

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With nearly a third of Grand Rapids Public Schools students still listed as chronically absent, Kent County prosecutors say they will try a new tool to get students back into the classroom.

Prosecutors say they will seek to file “educational neglect” allegations against some parents instead of criminal charges.

“We’ve tried other ways in the past and we just don’t seem to be making the headway we’d like to make,” Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Vicki Seidl said Tuesday.

The last two years, Kent County prosecutors charged an average of nine students and a handful of parents with criminal truancy. But already this year, prosecutors are working on 40 cases against kids and 32 against parents.

They say the numbers are growing because the problem has gotten worse and they’re paying more attention to it.

“A real last resort is to try and put somebody in jail because they don’t get their kids to school,” Seidl said. “That’s not what we want.”

As soon as this week, Kent County prosecutors will try something new — asking Children’s Protective Services to investigate parents for “educational neglect.”

In district court, where criminal charges are filed, the truancy penalty for parents is up to 90 days in jail. But a neglect case would go to Kent County Family Court, where judges can get them help, prosecutors said.

“Bringing a neglect charge and getting it before the court gives the court jurisdiction to be able to provide services,” said Kent County Assistant Prosecutor Michelle Smith-Lowe, who is on a statewide committee to address truancy. “The charge is not the point. Getting them in school is all we want.”

Until now, prosecutors say, CPS wouldn’t investigate educational neglect unless there were other abuse or neglect allegations against the parents.

“Educational neglect is one thing that a parent can be charged for and neglect charges be brought, and that’s something that we can do,” Smith-Lowe said.

One of the first cases could be against the parent of a 12-year-old who has missed much of this school year, Smith-Lowe said. She wouldn’t identify the child or the school, but said the district has tried working with the parent.

“And who’s responsible?” Smith-Lowe said. “The parent is responsible for getting that child to school.”

Grand Rapids Public Schools spokesman John Helmholdt said the district has worked closely with prosecutors and supports the change.

Prosecutors have seen what happens when nothing is done.

“There actually is a pipeline to prison when children don’t go to school and aren’t educated. We’re starting to see the results of years of not being attentive to the problem,” Smith-Lowe said.

Grand Rapids Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal during her State of our Schools address on Saturday said the district has taken a hard stand against chronic truancy — students who miss at least 10% of the 180-day school year. The district has made more than 470 home visits and turned 40 cases over to prosecutors, she said.

She said the chronic absenteeism rate has dropped to 29.6% this year, down from last year’s 36.4%.

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