Compulsory school attendance law helps some, but not much

By Bobby Harrison
Daily Journal Jackson Bureau
JACKSON – The solution to the state’s dropout problem is simple, right?

Existing compulsory attendance laws say any child under the age of 17 must be in school and parents can go to jail if their child is in violation.

So wouldn’t just enforcing the law take care of the dropout problem?

People who deal with the problem first-hand every day say the solution is not nearly so simple.

“What are we going to do with the kid – drag him back to school? He doesn’t want to be there,” said House Education Committee Chairman Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, who has been one of the leading advocates of finding ways to reduce the state’s 26.6 percent dropout rate.

Even though Mississippi has compulsory school attendance laws, Lee County Judge Charles Brett, who also serves as the youth court judge, said it is hard to keep a child in school.

Under law, Brett can order a child to attend school, but if he or she doesn’t comply, the judge has few options.

“The (legal) consequences for failing to attend school are limited,” noted Brett, who said he tries to go the extra mile to get children in school.

State law also allows the Youth Court judge to find a parent in contempt of court for not sending a child to school, and Brett says he has done just that.

“If I have a single mother who is working I will lock her up on the weekend so that she doesn’t lose her job,” he said.

Fall behind, then quit
Brett said he has seen the same result time and time again. Students will get two or three years behind in school because they attend sporadically. They turn 17, and are still in the ninth or 10th grade. They don’t want to stay in school until age 20 or 21 to get a diploma.
Under the law, they can drop out.

Brett said his goal is to keep children in school so that they do not get that far behind. When they do, he said, the best that can be hoped for in many cases is that the person will work to obtain a GED.

He admitted that there often is a fine line to walk between what to do with a child who is a habitual discipline problem.

“You have to balance the rights of all the other kids to have a proper atmosphere for learning,” he said.

While Brett might make those extra efforts to keep children in school, some state officials say that is not always the case.

“Most youth courts are so understaffed,” said state Superintendent of Education Hank Bounds. “Most are focused primarily on crime issues.”

House Juvenile Justice Committee Chairman George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, admitted that for many youth courts, school attendance “is secondary.”

Under the current system, Bounds said, by the time a youth court judge gets involved in an attendance issue, often it is too late.

Counselors swamped
And the youth court is not the only entity overwhelmed by the problem. The state’s 140 attendance counselors, whose job it is to keep children in school, have their hands full.

“A lot of attendance counselors are nothing more than statisticians,” said Flaggs.

What is needed, Flaggs said, are more attendance counselors who would work under the direction of school districts – not the state Department of Education.

Bounds said he believes the compulsory school attendance age should be increased to 18. But still, he said the primary solution to the dropout problem is not the court system.

He believes to keep children in school the culture in the state must be changed to place more of a value on education. Plus, high school must be redesigned to make it more relevant to all students – especially those who do not plan to go to college.