Spotlight On House Bill 319: Why I'm Fighting For It's Passage

sydnor_district_dispatch_1.pngOne of the best parts about representing the people of the district is being able to work with them to address a problem, whether it is legislatively or otherwise. This summer, my constituent, Mr. Phillips, reached out to me regarding a situation he experienced which he felt was unfair. After reading his email I too felt it was an issue that needed to be addressed. According to Mr. Phillips, his son has had tardiness and attendance problems since he was a sophomore. There were days that Mr. Phillips would drop his son off outside the front door and watch him walk into the building, only later to receive a message from the school that his son was not in attendance. Mr. Phillips contacted the school about giving him consequences for his actions. All it offered was detention, and when his son ignored it, no further disciplinary actions were taken in holding his son responsible for his lack of attendance.

Mr. Phillips lamented that the school failed to hold his son responsible for his truancy and simultaneously threatened him with criminal charges under Section 7-301 of the Education Article. Ultimately, criminal charges were filed against Mr. Phillips and he had to hire an attorney. Thankfully, his attorney convinced the pupil personnel worker to drop the charges against him moments before the case was to be heard.

Unfortunately, the next day Mr. Phillips’ son skipped school again and he was again threated with criminal charges. When he asked the school how it would now hold his son accountable for tardiness and truancy, Mr. Phillips was informed that detention was the school’s sole tool for him. The school also indicated that if the tardiness and truancy continued in his son’s senior year, Mr. Phillips would once again be held criminally responsible.

Desperate for a solution, Mr. Phillips researched the original legislative action that established this statute which included language that exempted anyone from any interpretation or application of the law who turned 17 before July 1, 2017, a section unfamiliar to the administrators who continued, relentlessly, to threaten me with fines and jail. Only after Mr. Phillips presented the pupil personnel worker and school administrators with evidence of this language in the original bill did the threats finally cease.

Mr. Phillips reached out to me to correct this potential injustice against parents who make every reasonable effort to get their kids to school. I did my own research and discovered that eight counties in Maryland who had Truancy Courts allowed parents to present a defense in these cases, providing the judge with evidence of how they attempted to ensure their child attended school.  If the judge believed the parent, the charges would be dismissed. Unfortunately, Baltimore County did not have a Truancy Court.

I worked with Mr. Phillips and introduced House Bill 319 which provides a parent or custodian who has made a reasonable and substantial efforts to see that the child attends school, but was unable to force the child’s attendance, an affirmative defense. This defense would be available to all parents across Maryland. Senator Shirley Nathan Pulliam cross-filed this same bill over in the Senate. The legislation would provide a measure of fairness for those who made all reasonable efforts to have the child attend school, but failed.

Mr. Phillips, the Office of Public Defender, and Baltimore County Public Schools’ Court Liaison Project Attend Facilitator all testified in favor of this resolution. As Mr. Phillips testified “While there are certainly some parents who must be compelled to get their children to school, we should not create a criminal class out of parents who have teenagers that refuse to attend school regularly, despite their parents’ best, and sometimes extraordinary, efforts.”

The hearings went extremely well in both the Senate and the House, so I expect the law will be modified. At this time, what that modification will be is not yet known. However, what is known, is but for Mr. Phillips being willing to step up and speak out, the law’s unintended consequences might not be known and certainly would not have been before the General Assembly for consideration to be amended. For his efforts, I salute Mr. Phillips!

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