A mother of a 15-year-old is the first parent to be charged under the Cape Girardeau School District's tougher attendance policy, which Cape Girardeau County's prosecuting attorney says is "rattling the cages" of parents and guardians of habitually absent children.
Susan Hager, 43, 1413 William St., has been charged with educational neglect, or violating the compulsory school attendance law, a misdemeanor. She faces up to 15 days in jail, a $300 fine and the possibility of probation of up to two years.
School records show Hager's child, enrolled at the Cape Girardeau Alternative Education Center, missed 15 days of school between Aug. 20 and Oct. 26, according to the probable-cause statement filed by the prosecuting attorney's office. The school sent letters to the student's parents following three, five and 10 unexcused absences, warning that the child was missing too many days of school and that Hager, who has custody, "had the duty to make sure the child attended school," the complaint states.
Per the beefed-up attendance policy that makes 10 unexcused absences an actionable offense, the prosecuting attorney's office sent Hager a hand-delivered warning letter Oct. 19, giving final warning that she would be prosecuted if the child continued to miss school.
"Even after receiving the letter, the defendant has still failed to make sure the child attends school," according to the probable-cause statement.
Hager could not be reached for comment.
Hager is the first to be charged under the tougher attendance policy, but Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle said his office has delivered at least six other warning letters to parents or guardians of children with 10 or more unexcused absences.
Swingle said the new policy has had its intended effect, that parents who haven't taken school attendance seriously are getting the message.
"I think it has caught their attention; it's rattling their cages," he said. "The whole goal is to give teeth to the school district. Without us backing it up, people could ignore it with impunity, and they have in the past.
"We sent a message out loud and clear that they can't ignore."
Swingle said school officials reported they noticed a positive change in attendance immediately, just as the district had hoped when the policy was first implemented.
"That's our long-term goal, that parents get children to school," he said. "Our best-case scenario is we prosecute nobody under this."
Carla Fee, principal at the Alternative Education Center, said she has seen a difference in attendance in recent weeks.
"We did a lot of communicating with parents as to the consequences, and that made a huge difference," said Fee, who also serves as the district's coordinator of at-risk programs.
Improving attendance, district officials say, is critical in the campaign to raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent by 2013. The rate was 73 percent in the last school year, up slightly from the previous year but down from 80.9 percent in 2006, according to state statistics.
Some Cape Girardeau residents have criticized the attendance policy, asserting it unfairly catches parents struggling with incorrigible children, or, as Fee says, students who "don't care if their parents go to jail."
Swingle said the updated code strengthens enforcement of a Missouri law long on the books and isn't designed to go after parents of truants.
"If we have a situation where a parent is dropping off a teen who is going in the front door and out back door, in that case the child gets taken to a juvenile center and that is handled in juvenile court for truancy," he said. "The ones we prosecute are the ones too lazy or irresponsible to get their children to school."
The prosecuting attorney's office has filed charges in educational neglect cases in the past, but prosecution typically occurred after a child had missed 30 days or more. By that time, educators told Swingle, it was too late to salvage the child's failing grades.