Committee lays over proposed truancy ordinance

Despite efforts, truancy rate has increased for the last three years

Illinois General Assembly action has paved the way for a proposed truancy ordinance. Senate Bill 2197, sponsored by State Rep. Chuck Jefferson (D-67) and signed into law July 7, allows non-home rule municipalities to create ways to increase school attendance.

The Rockford City Council Codes and Regulations Committee laid over proposed truancy ordinances during its July 17 meeting. City Attorney John Gilberti said one ordinance spells out consequences, another creates an ordinance hearing department. Gilberti said the city would like the ordinance passed by Aug. 14.

According to Gilberti, the ordinance would apply to parochial and public school students ages 7 to 17. Parents and guardians would be held liable for students ages 10 and younger. So, both parents and students could face fines. But Gilberti stressed homeschoolers would be exempt.

Ald. Patrick Curran (R-2) asked how many homeschoolers had been picked up. Rockford Police Deputy Chief Greg Lindmark said two or three students were stopped, but verified as home-schooled students and let go.

“Homeschooling was really not a problem,” Lindmark said

Gilberti said fines would range from $25 to $100. A first offense would bring a minimum fine of $25, while subsequent offenses would steadily increase to a maximum of $100, Gilberti said. He said a proposed truancy ordinance hearing department could help adjudicate the cases.

The department would require an attorney with at least three years experience to act as a hearing officer. Implementing the ordinance and creating the department would be a new tool used to deal with truant students.

According to Gilberti, fees would go to the general fund to help pay for the hearing officer. Ald. Carl Wasco (D-4) said he’d like to see the potential cost of the proposed department in writing.

“The aldermen should know those projected costs,” Wasco said.

Curran wondered whether the city could charge fees outside of the fine itself. The committee said that was a possibility. Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) noted it was something that the Winnebago County 1-cent jail sales tax could help finance—since the proposed new department would decrease the Winnebago County court system’s load.

Gilberti said the city’s daytime curfew ordinance allows students to be cited for being out between 9:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days. He said nearly 300 arrests had been made since June 28, noting that nearly 50 percent—146—had been dismissed.

According to Gilberti, many first-offenders take the deferred prosecution program at the Rock River Valley YMCA: “You get a wide range of students.” Offenders can also take part in Rockford Park District and United Way-sponsored community service projects. Gilberti said those pleading guilty are generally sentenced to eight hours of community service over two Saturdays.

Lindmark said 160 males and 120 females were arrested for daytime curfew violations. Lindmark said a nearly equal number—about 120—white and African-American students were arrested for daytime curfew violations. Hispanic students accounted for nearly 10 percent of the violators.

According to Lindmark, East High School, with more than 90 arrests for daytime curfew violations, has the highest rate of all the city’s high schools. He said there were fewer middle school violators since they tended to stay home when they skipped school.

Daytime curfew violators, Lindmark said, used an oft-repeated excuse: “I was just on my way to school.” But he reported that 265 of the 280 violators—nearly 95 percent—arrested made their way back to school.

Gilberti said the daytime curfew ordinance has helped improve school attendance, which has translated into a projected $225,000 increase in state funding.

Despite the improvement, more work needs to be done, he said, stressing the need for the truancy ordinance: “[Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey] looks at this as another tool to combat truancy. We still have a problem.”

From the July 19-25, 2006, issue

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