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‘Stay in school’ law stays in committee

Truancy Officer Charlie Milam handles about 60 students who are chronically truant from Evanston Township High School.

Sometimes, their parents force them to stay home. Other times, the students just walk out of the building. So a coalition of school staff and community members went to the Human Services Committee meeting on Tuesday seeking a city ordinance that would criminalize persistent class truancy.

Although the police chief and School District 202 officials endorsed the proposal, skeptical committee members decided to hold it in committee for later discussion.

“I’m sorry, I just don’t get it,” Alderman Delores Holmes said. “Why isn’t there something in our district that can take care of this?”

Cristina Cortesi, a social worker at Evanston Township High School and representative of the Evanston Restorative Justice Committee, which wrote the ordinance, said that the school does have policies in place but argued that a city ordinance would show that the whole city is taking ownership for truant students, not just the schools.

“We, as a community, want to take ownership of every child,” she said. The ordinance would send a message of support to the families involved, she said.

She also said the ordinance would act as another disincentive for persistent truancy.

Currently, if students are repeatedly truant, schools mail letters to the students’ families. If the behavior continues, a truancy officer visits the families. If the behavior still persists, the Cook County Regional Office of Education starts sending letters, and, if those are ignored, the government takes the students from their families.

The new ordinance would wedge an additional red flag between letters from the regional office and state intervention, Youth and Family Services member Patrice Quehl said at the meeting. The city would charge up to $100 for violations.

Committee members, however, said that the ordinance would too impractical to enforce.

“For failure to pay, are we going to arrest somebody?” Alderman Jane Grover said. “All of a sudden, we’re in a whole different territory.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste said that the ordinance would cost the city money and manpower for enforcement and adjudication. No statistics are available as to how the ordinance would cost the city annually.

Further, there is no information available on whether criminalizing truancy deters the behavior, Cortesi said.

The ordinance will remain in the committee for further discussion.

“Maybe there are some other ways that the city can partner District 202 and District 65 to raise the level of awareness as to the impact of truancy,” Jean-Baptiste said. “I think we all agree with the passion that underlies this kind of initiative, but we need to find other ways.”

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