Washington D.C. Truancy Laws Led To Criminal Charge For Mom Who Took Son On Trip To Mongolia

One Washington D.C. mother narrowly escaped criminal charges for taking her adopted son out of school for a trip to Mongolia where she planned to adopt, for him, another brother. 

The story, reported recently in The Washington Post by columnist Petula Dvorak, highlights what Dvorak says is a growing problem with overly rigid truancy laws for D.C. Public Schools.

Upon making the decision to adopt a second child from Mongolia, Jessica Smith said she decided that taking her son Ziggy back to the country where he was born would be an enriching experience for him.

She approached her son’s elementary school principal and devised a set of lesson plans for the three-week trip and thought she had permission to take Ziggy along. 

But a year and a half later, after Ziggy had successfully completed the second grade and started the third grade, Smith received a knock on the door and was served with a summons.

She was ordered to appear in court on a criminal neglect charge because Ziggy missed more than 20 days of school the previous year. 

The situation was similar to that of the parents of Avery Gagliano who took their middle school daughter out of classes to perform in international piano competitions. 

The D.C. public school system also labeled Avery, who is described as a piano prodigy, as a truant.

Dvorak reported that story for The Washington Post as well. 

Her parents, not wanting to give up on Avery’s piano performances, and not wanting to deal with truancy officials again, pulled the girl out of school.

“We decided to home-school her because of all the issues, because it was like a punch in the gut to have to face the fight again this year,” said her father, Drew Gagliano. “We didn’t want to do this. We want to be part of the public school system. Avery has been in public school since kindergarten. She’s a great success story for the schools.”

Smith said she, too, has lost faith in the public school system.

“It’s a slap in the face and it’s insulting,” she said of her criminal charges.

Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the schools, declined to comment on individual cases but she defended the rigid protocols set up to deal with the city’s severe truancy problem.

In 2013, nearly a third of the city’s public school students missed more than 10 days of schools. Often times when students don’t report to school, neither their parents nor school officials know where they are.

“What I believe is most important to emphasize here is why these protocols exist in the first place, which is to protect children,” Salmanowitz said. “It is explicit for a reason — that reason being that no matter why the absence, someone is looking out to make sure the child is safe.”

Luckily for Smith, the charges against her were dropped after the principal provided proper documentation that Ziggy’s absence was arranged and excused.

But Dvorak argues that such cases aren't exceptional.

“I’ve received dozens of calls and e-mails from parents whose kids also got caught in the truancy system because of legitimate absences,” she writes. “There were other horror stories about lawyers and court dates, too.”

Sources: The Washington Post (Smith Story), The Washington Post (Gagliano Story)

Photo Credit: Ryan McKnight/Flickr, WikiCommons


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