In response to the increasing number and complexity of legal issues faced by Baltimore City Public School students and families in the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Truancy Court Program (TCP)
, CFCC established the TCP Legal Initiative in January 2014.
Supported by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention, the initiative strengthens the TCP team by adding an attorney who focuses on legal and law-related issues underlying truant behavior, such as homelessness, public benefits, special education, and school discipline. Since January, the TCP Attorney has advised more than 40 students and parents and has made 23 referrals to community or legal organizations.
The TCP Attorney's Role
The TCP operates by team members identifying and addressing the issues that cause each student's truancy. Based on a holistic and interdisciplinary approach, the TCP consists of 10 weekly, in-school meetings with students and their families. Participants at each meeting include: a volunteer Maryland judge, a team of public school representatives, a TCP Mentor, a TCP Social Worker, a University of Baltimore (UB) law student, a supervisor from CFCC, the child, and his or her parent/caregiver. Each member of the team has a voice and a valuable role to play.
The TCP Attorney focuses on the legal challenges faced by TCP participants and explains options available to families for resolving law-related issues. For example, if a child is struggling academically, the TCP Attorney explains the parent's or guardian's legal right to request an evaluation for learning disabilities or special needs. Many guardians do not realize that if they request an evaluation in writing, then federal law provides a timeline within which the school must act.
If students are traveling long distances to school, the TCP Attorney investigates whether they qualify for transportation under the federal McKinney-Vento Act (requiring the school to provide transportation to students who are deemed legally "homeless") or a local school policy. Parents often limit their search for adequate housing based upon school zones, but an explanation of their right to transportation can alleviate this concern.
If a child is moving among caregivers, the TCP Attorney explains the implications of pursuing legal guardianship or a formal custody arrangement. Often, a simple filing can enable a guardian to receive benefits on behalf of a student or may empower him/her to make educational decisions on the student's behalf.
If a TCP student's absences are related to a chronic health condition, the TCP Attorney considers whether he/she qualifies for in-home health and education services. Few families realize that the public schools provide in-home instruction for chronically ill students. Furthermore, if the illness is related to the home environment, the family may have a right to seek a remedy for substandard housing conditions.
Knowledge Is Power
The TCP Attorney equips students and families to exercise their rights by providing information. After explaining the legal options, the TCP Attorney steers the family toward resources, such as legal services organizations, community providers, and/or state or city agencies and guides them through the process of getting help.
Students are rarely truant simply because they choose not to come to school. Truancy is a complicated problem that is linked to challenging circumstances at home, in school, and in the community. It calls for an extensive outreach effort to the entire community and a response that incorporates a non-adversarial and therapeutic approach. The TCP Legal Initiative is an important tool to help define the problems faced by TCP students and their families, and it is one that ultimately empowers them to take a role in crafting the solutions.