Fri, 13 Jun 2014 07:06:36 PDT
There’s no doubt that Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is one of the most iconic films from the 1980s. Ferris skips school, goes to a Cubs game, drives a Ferrari, gets the gorgeous girl, and outwits Principal Rooney. But would we have been laughing if Ferris’ mother had been thrown in jail because of her son’s truancy and ended up dying there?
That’s exactly what happened to 55-year-old Pennsylvania mom Eileen DiNino. The unemployed mother of seven didn’t have the wealth of the fictional Bueller family, so she was unable to pony up $2,000 for truancy fines that her kids racked up for missing school. Although the federal government outlawed debtor’s prisons in the 1830s, last Friday DiNino, who lived in Berks County, an hour northwest of Philadelphia, was tossed in a jail cell to serve out a two-day sentence. A cause of death is still to be determined, but law enforcement officials didn’t give DiNino the high blood pressure medication she needed. She was found dead in her cell on Saturday, reported The Associated Press.
While the trend of jailing impoverished people is chilling enough, what’s also concerning is that being locked up for truancy fines is more common than most Americans realize. In Berks County alone, over 1,600 parents and guardians have been locked up since 2000 due to nonpayment of truancy fines, and two-thirds of those incarcerated are women. Like DiNino, the majority come from low income backgrounds and have no Bueller-style cash, savings, or credit card to offer up as payment.
It’s easy to say that the solution is for the parents to ensure their child goes to school—don’t do the crime, don’t do the time. But if a child’s not showing up, or is chronically late to school, chances are that something in the family’s circumstance is keeping that from happening. Maybe it’s a lack of transportation. Maybe it’s that the parent works nontraditional hours and isn’t home in the morning to get the kids ready. In DiNino’s case, due to her poverty, the overwhelmed single mom avoided homelessness by staying at a relative’s house.
Organizations like Communities in Schools, which consults with families and connects them with social services to solve whatever issues are keeping a child from showing up, are more effective than financial punishment at getting kids to school and ensuring they graduate. But there’s an insidious reason districts and local municipalities have taken to handing out truancy fines: Cold hard cash.
School funding that trickles down from state coffers is based on kids being in seats—it’s called the Average Daily Attendance. So while it’s true that a kid can’t learn math or science if he’s not in class, with education budgets decimated since the start of the Great Recession, every day a student is absent reduces the amount of money a school has at its disposal.
And, similar to the racial bias in drug sentencing laws that has filled the nation’s prisons, the way truancy fines are meted out has also been seen as discriminatory. In 2013, the school district of the town of Lebanon, about 40 minutes from Berks County, settled a class action lawsuit that had been filed two years earlier by Philadelphia’s Public Interest Law Center on behalf of 170 families and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The suit declared that Lebanon’s truancy fines were “excessive and illegal” and were being unfairly applied to minority families. In the settlement, the district didn’t have to admit any wrongdoing, and an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights was unable to find evidence of explicit racial discrimination. Still, the district had to refund monies it collected between 2004 and 2009.
On the other side of the country in Los Angeles, which instituted harsh daytime truancy laws in 1995, numerous complaints from civil rights and community organizations said that the LAPD was using truancy ticketing to explicitly target students of color and put them on the school to prison pipeline. A student in South Los Angeles could be around the corner from school, rushing to beat the tardy bell, but if he didn’t get through the door in time, the LAPD would be waiting to give tickets. With court fees added to them, the fines were costing low-income families $400 a pop. On the wealthier and whiter Westside of the city, that ticketing wasn’t happening.
In 2011, Los Angeles’ law enforcement and school district officials announced an official end to the practice, but that kind of ticketing scenario happens in countless American cities. Depending on the location, a local school district might receive a portion of any additional fees a court decides to tack on. In DiNino’s case, the court “file shows a laundry list of court fees for one case alone: $8 for a ‘judicial computer project’; $60 for Berks County constables; $10 for postage,” reported the AP.
As for DiNino’s kids, whether they’ll be split up and placed into foster care or if relatives will take them in is still unknown. Sadly, unlike truant Ferris Bueller, for her children, there is no happy Hollywood ending.
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Original article from TakePart