In Order to Teach'em, You Need to Reach'em

If the members of the City of Richmond School Board are serious about putting policies in place that will help Richmond Public School students and teachers improve the district's dismal accreditation and graduation numbers,  they can begin by doing their statutory duty and take charge of the truancy program.

The way truancy matters are currently handled is classic Richmond, complete with two redundant and mostly dysfunctional departments, each staffed by well-meaning individuals tasked to do the same thing.  

One department is run by City of Richmond officials and the other is administered by RPS officials.  More's the pity then that neither seems to be doing a bang-up job of enforcing Virginia's compulsory attendance laws.  Moreover, the officials at the Virginia Department of Education -- who also have a statutory duty to enforce the Commonwealth's attendance laws -- are failing to provide guidance or enforcement assistance to RPS.

The seven new School Board members and two holdovers from the previous School Board are expected to consider approval tonight of a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) drafted by the City Attorney's office, with no input from School Board members or the district's high-priced private lawyers.  [Click above or HERE to Read MOA DRAFT].

As with virtually all of RPS and the City of Richmond, this document is bereft of accountability.  Nobody is in charge; nobody is keeping accounts; nobody is accountable. And everybody is stepping on one another's toes.

The roots of this bifurcated approach to truancy matters reach back to former Governor L. Douglas Wilder's stint as the Mayor of the City of Richmond [2004-2008] when, much to the dismay of the members of the School Board, Wilder managed to seize control of $675,000 that had been allocated by the General Assembly for a pilot program on truancy.  Wilder kept the money and created his own truancy team, a team that remains in place nearly six years after Wilder left office.  

Never mind that the Virginia Code expressly delegates enforcement of truancy laws to local School Boards and NOT to city or county governments.  

Never mind that a truant child was stabbed to death during the school day in broad daylight by another truant child at Staples Mill Road and Broad Street when school officials were supposed to know where the kids were. Apparently, both students reported to first period classes and left shortly thereafter.  No one stopped the boys as they left school property.

Never mind that neither the city nor the school system bothered to appoint attendance officers (as required by law) or to provide requisite training for those charged with finding truant children and returning them to school. 

Never mind that an RPS student died in a car crash in June 2012 after unauthorized truancy officers from the city engaged in a high-speed pursuit of the vehicle in which several students were riding, a pursuit that no doubt contributed to the driver losing control of the vehicle. 

How many more kids will have to die before city and school officials get it together? 

David Hicks, former Commonwealth's Attorney and current Senior Advisor to Mayor Dwight C. Jones has long been attempting to get city and school officials to coordinate their efforts, but has thus far been unsuccessful.  He tried during Wilder's administration and he is still trying. 

When asked about the changes to the MOA that School Board members requested -- small, but significant changes that would have simply inserted language into the agreement that would keep the School Board members informed in a timely manner of any changes or challenges encountered by the city's Department of Juvenile Justice, both Hicks and the city attorney refused to include School Board members' concerns and sent it back to the board unchanged. 

Hicks was clearly frustrated and angry last week with what he perceives as "pushback" from the School Board.  "I am not at all impressed with this board.  It looks like they will just have to vote it up or vote it down." 

Nor, are others familiar with the situation impressed with either what the city and the School Board are doing separately or in tandem.  Some have suggested that what is needed at this time is someone who could essentially serve as a Truancy Czar, with the authority and responsibility to manage RPS' compliance with Virginia Code 22.1-258, and with the duty to report, frequently and in detail, on the truancy in the Richmond system and the steps taken to abate that truancy and the results of those efforts.

Without a mechanism for information and accountability, the MOA to be discussed this evening will be just another process for expending resources with no reasonable expectation of helping the kids, i.e., a boondoggle.

As they consider the MOA on Truancy Enforcement tonight, interim Supt. Jonathan Lewis and the School Board would be doing the children and citizens of the City of Richmond a favor if they were to remove Victoria Oakley, the Chief Academic Officer of RPS, from having anything whatsoever to do with truancy enforcement.  Here's why:

On  August 272013, Oakley was front-and-center when Richmond Public Schools held a press conference and essentially bragged that they are violating State law.  She still doesn't seem to get that RPS is violating the law.

Repeating a presentation she gave to City Council in March, Oakley told the press assembled that our school system takes truancy seriously and they have a system for dealing with it.  Indeed, she presented a flow chart showing that RPS calls the parent of a student who has ten or more unexcused absences and sends the parent a letter from the Commonwealth’s attorney after the tenth absence.

Yet § 22.1-258 of the CODE of Virginia requires that RPS either prosecute the parent(s) or file a Child in Need of Supervision petition in Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court after the seventh unexcused absence.  The statute does not say that the school system “may” act after the seventh unexcused absence; it requires that the system “shall” act.

Even in this jurisdiction -- with the fourth from the lowest math SOL scores in the Commonwealth -- seven is less than ten.

The presentation contains the following data:

School Year
CHINS Petitions

The presentation neglects to mention that Richmond had 2,576 students who accumulated ten or more unexcused absence in the 2012 school year and 1996 in 2013.  That is, in 2012 RPS acted after ten absences less than five percent as often as the law required it to act after seven absences; in 2013 their performance rose to almost thirteen percent.

The results of this neglect are clear in the dropout rate and the graduation rate.
  • The statute (22.1-258) requires a prosecution or a CHINS petition upon the seventh absence; Richmond does not even threaten the parents until the tenth absence;
  • Richmond is filing the required judicial actions in less than 10% of the ten-absence cases, notwithstanding the requirement for filing upon the seventh absence in every case.  That is, your minions are placing you in gross violation of the law.
  • We are unable to find any report of the outcomes of the few cases where Richmond has filed the required actions.  It turns out that there is a structure in place for CHINS petitions, where the intake officer can defer filing the petition with the court for 90 days to prepare a truancy plan and must file the petition only if the truant fails to comply with the plan.  We have asked for data on the outcomes of this process but have yet to see any.
  • There are at least two processes for creating a truancy plan following a CHINS petition.  We can find no information as to whether there have been any such plans, the process used, or the results.
  • As to the prosecutions, the Superintendent has two choices: A Class 3 misdemeanor ($500 fine) or a Class 1 misdemeanor ($2,500 and/or up to a year in jail).  It seems that Richmond has chosen the lesser remedy in every case.  
  • Without records showing the reasons for those choices and the outcomes, there is no way to manage this process.  But on the current record there is a strong implication that Richmond is taking the easier path.
Again, the bottom line: RPS and the City are violating the law.  At the end of the day, we are losing far too many children to death on the streets and still more in the cradle to prison pipeline. 

If Hicks and Mayor Jones really want to bring "radical" change to the school system and the members of the school board are serious about bringing "reform" to RPS, perhaps they can find "common ground" by demanding that the city and school departments dedicated to combating truancy come under one "umbrella" and stop violating Virginia law.

Makes me wanna holler!  (CLICK HERE …..)