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Photo Credit: Ohio State University Kirwan Institute for the study of Race and Ethnicity
OPINION BY Contributor Carlos Moreno
“We do not want to put anybody in jail,” District 5 City Councilor Karen Gilbert has repeated several times to the media in defense of a new city ordinance that is being considered by the Council. The new ordinance attempts to address the problem of chronic absenteeism, but outlines harsh punishments on parents and children and promotes almost nothing in the way of forward-thinking solutions.
According to the Tulsa Public Schools Strategic Plan, 25.7 percent of students are chronically absent. Research shows that students who have more than ten unexcused absences are less likely to succeed in their classes, less likely to graduate, and more likely to have problems with education and employment later in life.
There is already a truancy law on the books at the state level. Oklahoma Statutes Title 70 Section 10-105 reads that the punishment to the parent for a child missing school should be, “a fine of $25 to $50 and not more than five days in jail.” Tulsa’s proposed law goes much further than this. In Tulsa, a parent or guardian can be charged with paying “$500.00, excluding costs, fees and assessments, or imprisonment in the City jail for a period of not more than six (6) Months, or by both such fine and imprisonment” for each day of unexcused absence. Moreover, the ordinance outlines in great detail misdemeanor charges for children between the ages of 12 and 18—harsh punishments that appear nowhere in Oklahoma’s statutes.
Councilor Phil Lakin states, “There are lots of other options for police and the courts before fines.” While this is true, these options are not outlined clearly in the ordinance. Section 3201-D describes things that the parent can do in order to receive a deferred sentence. These are copied almost word for word out of the state statute and include submitting to a drug test and making sure that the child attends school, but offers nothing in the way of services or resources that might help with any societal issues that may have led to the child’s absences. Another section of the law states that community service can be done in lieu of the fine, but not in lieu of serving jail time. Nothing is described that would help the 12 to 18-year-old avoid being charged with a misdemeanor.
A parent or guardian can be charged with paying “$500.00, excluding costs, fees and assessments, or imprisonment in the City jail for a period of not more than six (6) Months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Sweeping, punitive laws like this one are ill-conceived and do not achieve their intended outcomes. A recent evaluation of the truancy policies of all 50 U.S. states by the Guardian revealed that “there is no concrete data to back up the idea that fining and jailing parents helps fight truancy.” The analysis finds alternatives, such as suspending the driver’s license of a young teen who skips school or connecting the family to pre-court diversion programs, to be much more effective strategies.
Another comprehensive study conducted by the Marshall Project found that “criminalization of truancy often pushes students further away from school, and their families deeper into poverty.”
Forward-thinking cities are trying new measures that put more control and decision-making in the hands of schools and teachers, who often have a good understanding of the families in their care. Jennings Public School district in Missouri partners with social services organizations to assist with housing, clothing, and food inside of the schools themselves. The California-based nonprofit Attendance Works lists several action items for schools and communities, including establishing positive relationships with students and families, as well as identifying and addressing barriers to attendance.
Personalized outreach and caring mentors at the school level can go a long way to creating an environment where the child wants to be at school, rather than pitting schools and law enforcement against families.
The city has demonstrated innovative thinking in other areas. Community Service Council has upgraded the 2-1-1 database as such that many nonprofits in the city can have current, comprehensive lists of resources available for low-income families. A new multi-agency collaborative called Tulsa CARES works to identify and solve healthcare issues for those in need. This same model could be established at the district level for families who are facing various barriers to getting their kids to school, such as job insecurity, transportation/health issues, or an unstable living situation.
Both TPS and GT Bynum’s office have expressed a great interest in data-driven decision making. It would be very beneficial for the district to have a complete analysis of data on the child’s age and the socioeconomic conditions of the families who have problems with chronic absenteeism in seeking out the common causes of absenteeism. It would be interesting to see which neighborhoods in Tulsa have the highest rates of chronic absenteeism, and then find out whether Tulsa Transit might offer discounted passes or alter their routes to help get more middle- and high-school age kids to school.
None of these ideas are part of this proposed ordinance. A TPD officer who doesn’t share Councilor Gilbert’s compassion and nuance may use this ordinance punitively. In the criminal justice system, with a prosecutor who has the power to charge someone, the intent of a City Councilor does not matter. If this law goes into effect as written, we are trusting that this ordinance will be appropriately enforced. We the citizens of Tulsa would need to trust that prosecutors and judges will read the true intent of this ordinance and not just its punishments; utilize the carrot incentives, not the punitive sticks.
This ordinance is one tool to use. However, it would end up functioning more like an aimless hammer. The city has a lot of tools it needs to explore.
I’d like to see us as a city find ways to give those tools to neighborhoods and teachers who know the problems on an intimate level, and can help provide compassionate solutions before they escalate to fining and jailing families. Putting a family in tougher financial straits isn’t going to help get that child get the motivation to attend school.
Carlos Moreno is a graphic designer in Tulsa, OK. He is a 2014 NextCity Vanguard and has a Bachelor’s degree in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. Moreno serves as an advisory board member of the Mayor’s Office of Performance Strategy and Innovation, and volunteers as co-captain of Tulsa’s Code for America brigade.