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Under improved truancy law, Pa. parents still face jail and even higher fines

Ellen DiNino, a 55-year-old mother of seven from Reading, had accumulated more than $2,000 in fines and court costs for her children's chronic school absences. With no way to pay, she was sent to jail for two days under Pennsylvania's truancy law.

Ellen DiNino, a 55-year-old mother of seven from Reading, had accumulated more than $2,000 in fines and court costs for her children's chronic school absences. With no way to pay, she was sent to jail for two days under Pennsylvania's truancy law.

The first night, she complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing. A doctor would see her the next day, she was told. But the next day, June 8, 2014, she was dead of heart failure.

From DeNino's death grew a groundswell to radically change the way the state dealt with truancy. The law's harsh penalties, critics said, created a kind of debtors' prison for poor families already buried by social and financial crises.

But what has emerged from the sausage grinder of lawmaking in Harrisburg - a truancy overhaul package signed by Gov. Wolf earlier this month – isn't quite what reformers had in mind.

The final measure actually raises court fines - from a maximum $300 to $750 for parents or truants age 15 or older - while the threat of jail time still hangs over parents of the most intractable absentees. It defines truancy as three days of unexplained absences, and habitual truancy as six days.

Advocates for low-income students say the new law risks driving some of Pennsylvania's most economically burdened families further into the shadows.

"There is concern that increased fines will continue to be imposed upon poor families and families of color, and fail to eliminate the barriers to truancy that their children are facing," said Alex Dutton, a law fellow at the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

Nonetheless, Dutton and some educators also praised aspects of the new law - particularly the requirement that schools come up with early-intervention plans, in the hope of keeping truancy cases out of the courts.

"Not many school systems want to lock up parents, or have them pay a fine" of hundreds of dollars, said Daniel Nerelli, assistant superintendent in the Upper Darby School District in Delaware County. The district, he said, already has been stressing intervention, with help from social workers and guidance counselors.

Habitual absenteeism particularly bedevils high-poverty districts.

In the Philadelphia suburbs, districts reporting significant truancy problems include Norristown, with 19 percent of students chronically truant; William Penn, with 22 percent, and Chester Upland, with 49 percent last year.

In the Philadelphia School District so far this year, 46 percent of students have three or more unexplained absences. The scope of the city's problem has inspired an approach in which the most egregious cases go to a community-based Truancy Court under the auspices of the Family Court system. The risk of jail or fines is eliminated, Dutton said, but the most habitually truant students could be sent to group homes or other institutions.

Lee Whack, a Philadelphia School District spokesperson, said the new law should aid the district in an ongoing review of attendance policies. "It certainly looks like something in the right direction as far as a comprehensive approach to drive down truancy and drive up attendance," Whack said.

Under the prior state law, which had not been updated since the 1990s, intervention by school officials was recommended but not mandated, and cases of three or more unexcused absences were to be automatically referred to local magisterial district courts for action.

In the four-year period of 2012-15, according to state records, more than 2,500 people across Pennsylvania spent some time in jail over truancy violations, with the largest totals in two counties - York and Berks, which includes poverty-wracked Reading.

"This is a school issue, not a criminal issue - we have to decriminalize it as much as we can," said State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Montgomery), who crafted the original legislation with State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Berks County Democrat whose district includes Reading.

A later House version of the bill, however, increased fines - which had been capped at $300 – to $500 for a second offense and $750 for a third and subsequent. Instead of eliminating the possibility of jail time, the maximum sentence was reduced from five days to three.

"There's a provision somebody can go to jail - but only for a very willful violation," said Schwank, who had been alarmed by the high incarceration rate in her home county.

Along with advocates for disadvantaged youth and educators, Schwank agrees that the most important provisions of the bill require schools to convene so-called attendance-improvement conferences to come up with plans to resolve individual issues before the legal system gets involved. Some local administrators said that Harrisburg codified what their districts had already been doing.

"We're vigilant with school attendance-improvement plans and have a home-and-school team to work with families to remove those barriers for kids who are habitually truant," said Christopher Dormer, assistant superintendent of the Norristown Area School District.

In Upper Darby, Nerelli said the biggest hurdle for local districts seeking to avoid court intervention is not a lack of willpower but a lack of resources.

Experience shows that early intervention is much more successful than court action, Nerelli said. He noted, though, that some smaller districts may see the law as another unfunded mandate from Harrisburg.

"You're limited with the number of social services," Nerelli said. "Not every school has a full-time social worker or guidance counselor in elementary and middle school."

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella