DETROIT – The night Demarco Harris shot and killed a woman during a robbery on a Detroit street, his parents told police knocking on their door at 2 a.m. they didn’t know where their 12-year-old was.
Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said that’s indicative of a larger issue in Detroit, where the lack of making parents accountable for their children partly is blamed on elevated truancy and dropout rates, as well as a recent rash of violent crimes involving teens.
Worthy has a new idea she hopes will fix the problem: Jail parents for up to three days for repeatedly missing scheduled parent-teacher conferences.
“I have seen that younger and younger children are committing more violent acts and we need to look at different approaches,” Worthy told reporters. “I know we need to try something different. We should not have to legislate this, but what we have been doing is not working.”
She’s still working on the details, but once her proposal is finished, she hopes to present it to county commissioners in August and persuade them to approve an ordinance. After that, she may take it to state legislators in Lansing.
It’s unlikely to quickly become an ordinance because it would probably be challenged in court because civil libertarians say it may be outside the law. Even some teachers, who often spend several hours waiting for parents who don’t show up for the conferences, are skeptical.
“I understand the prosecutor’s concern, but jail time?” said Detroit middle school teacher Ann Crowley.
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Worthy first considered her proposal after a spate of shootings involving students that culminated in the June 2009 wounding of seven teens at a city bus stop. The Demarco Harris’ trial convinced her she was on the right track.
He had been in and out of school a lot and his parents rarely met with his teachers. Then came Aug. 1 2009 when authorities were investigating a killing.
“When police went to his parents, his parents were not able to account for his whereabouts and it was about 2 in the morning,” Worthy said.
Harris, who is now 13, was convicted in May of killing 24-year-old Trisha Babcock. He was sentenced to a high-security juvenile lockup.
“We’re trying to prevent any more Demarco Harrises from going down that road,” Worthy said.
Under her plan, Wayne County parents would be required to pick a time and day to attend one parent-teacher conference a year. If that conference is missed, the school would send out a letter to set up another within 14 days. If the second is missed, parents get a letter about sanctions, which could include up to three days in jail.
Parents with health concerns and those whose children are performing above average could be exempt. “I’m not interested in putting parents in jail if their children are high achievers,” Worthy said.
Currently attendance at parent-teacher conferences isn’t mandatory, and Worthy’s plan may be challenged because it could infringe on a parent’s civil rights.
“A criminal justice solution is not the answer to complicated social problems,” said Kary Moss, executive director of Michigan’s American Civil Liberties Union. “The last thing many families in dire situations need is more punishment by the criminal justice community. There’s established law already that governs child abuse and neglect, and that sets up the standard for involvement by the government in the family’s affairs.”
There doesn’t appear to be any existing legislation similar to what Worthy wants. She didn’t know of any and the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state laws, didn’t know of one. Similar proposals in Texas and Kentucky have failed.
Republican Kentucky state Rep. Adam Koenig submitted a bill last year that didn’t make it out of committee. It would have required parents to attend at least one conference with teachers for each child in school. Failure to do so would have meant a $50 fine.
“I wanted to get parental involvement in the schools more attention,” Koenig said. “There’s a reluctance to fine parents who are often viewed as too busy. I’m of the opinion that there’s a lot of people who’ve paid taxes to have these kids learn. Parents have some responsibility.”
The 2007 Texas bill called for fining parents $500 and charging them with a misdemeanor for missing a scheduled parent-teacher conference.
Making sure Detroit students make it to school and stay there through the end of the day has long been a problem. The average student missed 46 days last school year.
Worthy’s office penalizes parents and guardians for school truancy. But by the time prosecutors get involved, large chunks of classroom time already have been missed. Hundreds of cases are reviewed each year, but only 50 or so result in prosecution. Educational neglect is a misdemeanor that carries up to 90 days in jail and a fine for parents. Older students could end up in juvenile court.
Derek Muhammad, who has a son in high school, has never attended a conference with a teacher, saying it’s hard to find the time while working. The 40-year-old said it’s also up to students to understand what’s required of them in terms of school achievement and positive behavior.
“Anytime you’re talking about a penalty that will take away the parent from the child who already is in trouble, then you have a very dangerous outcome,” said Muhammad, a motivational speaker. “There’s anger from the student, time away from the parent and hostility toward whatever caused that, and that’s the school system.”
Caught in the middle are teachers, who want to help students succeed, but struggle to compel parents to have the same interest.
Former Detroit special education teacher Emily Williams said it was disheartening when 3 out of 15 parents would attend meetings.
“Sometimes I would call home. Sometimes the phone was cut off. If you send a letter home, sometimes it wouldn’t get to the parents,” she said.
Instead of jailing parents, Williams suggests Worthy give them community service.
“A lot (of homes) are headed by single parents,” she said. “If momma is not coming home, who is going to watch the kids?”