The death of a 55-year-old mother of seven has led to the proposal of new legislation in the PA Senate, which would eliminate sending parents of frequently truant children to jail.
Some school districts in Pennsylvania have a policy where a child who is absent without an excuse for an excessive number of days must appear before a magisterial district judge, and the parents of the child could be fined.
After Eileen Dinino of Reading failed to pay $2,000 in fines and fees for the 55 truancy citations on her sons, she was sentenced to two days in Berks County Jail. She died of undetermined causes on June 7th shortly after she surrendered to serve her sentence.
“What the legislation will do is require that school districts create Truancy Elimination Plans for students who are habitually truant ... If an individual or a family could not pay the fine, they would be given an option for community service, or some other alternative to jail,” said Sen. Judy Schwank (D-Berks).
Federal law prohibits an individual from being jail for not paying a fine if that person is believed to have the ability to pay.
Habitual truancy is defined by the State Department of Education as six or more unexcused absences. According to the department, in 2012-13 the truancy rate in Allegheny County was 8.2%. Wilkinsburg had the highest rate at 40.9%.
Schwank says the current way of handling truancy doesn’t address the issue of getting the child to be engaged in school.
“What’s good about [the legislation] is that it solves the problem where it should, at the school district level rather than in our court system,” said Schwank.
Current law allows for the sentencing of a parent to up to five days in jail for not paying truancy fines.