By Juliette Spencer, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016
As a Student Fellow at the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”), I have had the privilege of conducting research to assist the parents and students involved with CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP), people who are directly affected by the public school system. Beyond the education that is mandated for our children, there are so many other issues that affect our children once we send them off in the morning. The first issue, attendance, is what I initially believed was the sole focus of the Student Fellows Program. Since joining the CFCC Student Fellows Program, I have learned that attendance is a small part of the Truancy Court Program. Absenteeism, however, is a signal for the Truancy Court Program team that there are other issues affecting the student and family that require immediate, urgent attention.
Homelessness, lack of money, lack of childcare for siblings, long bus rides to school, unsafe bus rides to school, parents’ inability to get their child to school, learning disabilities, lack of knowledge of standard educational skills (such as reading), and the list goes on. These are some of the issues faced by our families that the TCP team uncovers when trying to determine the root causes for a student’s truant behavior.
Lack of uniforms is one of the issues faced by many of our families. Baltimore City has mandated a city wide uniform requirement. A uniform requirement can be beneficial in many ways, as it can potentially:
- Decrease violence and theft — even life-threatening situations — among students over designer clothing or expensive sneakers
- Prevent gang members from wearing gang colors and insignia at school
- Instill discipline in students
- Help parents and students resist peer pressure
- Help students concentrate on their school work
- Help school officials recognize intruders who come to the school
A large downside to a uniform requirement is the inability of many families to afford uniforms for their child(ren) to wear to school. While the Baltimore City Public Schools does provide vouchers for homeless or low-income families, the need is far greater than the supply, and many students fall by the wayside. The McKinney-Vento Act prohibits schools from disciplining or punishing homeless students for attending school without a uniform. Similarly, Baltimore City Public Schools’ policy states that students cannot be sent home for failure to comply with the uniform requirement. Disappointingly, many schools do not adhere to this policy and continue to send students home for failing to wear the appropriate uniform. In an effort to help needy students and families, many organizations have stepped up to collect uniforms. Johns Hopkins runs an annual school uniform drive, and the Baltimore Community Foundation collects donations online for uniforms, as well.
Other issues faced by many of our families are disabilities. There are two programs available to any child who meets the mandated requirements–an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and a 504 Plan. In both instances a team is formed which can include a social worker, teachers, administrators, parents, and the student. If a student already has an IEP or 504 Plan, our TCP team may also participate on the IEP team. The student is evaluated at the parent’s or a teacher’s request, and, if the student meets the requirements, an IEP or 504 Plan is developed to facilitate the child’s learning. The plans also protect children in regard to discipline. If a student with an IEP or 504 Plan gets into trouble, he or she cannot be immediately suspended. The IEP team is given the chance to determine if the issue that arose is directly linked to the child’s disability. If the child’s alleged misbehavior is directly related to his or her disability, the school cannot suspend the child.
One of the projects that we Student Fellows have worked on consistently throughout the semester is preparing fact and information sheets for the parents of students in the TCP. When researching to prepare these fact sheets, we encountered many issues, including a lack of statistical data, many phone numbers that all traced back to the same place, impolite people, and a complete lack of information. As a result, we have had to pull information from many different sources in order to make fact sheets that are informative and accurate, particularly with respect to contact information.
As a Student Fellow, I have experienced far more than I ever thought I would. I never anticipated the emotions and interest I would come to feel about the TCP, the students, and the Student Fellows Program in general. Being a parent and wondering where I would go for resources if my child had issues, and then struggling as a law student to find answers, has made me truly feel for the parents who lack the resources that I have. Preparing fact sheets and identifying the rights of the students and their parents is something that should be done more frequently. It is the only way that we can really show the students and their parents that we care about them.
 The McKinney-Vento Act also protects homeless students from being denied access to school programs and field trips due to their inability to pay.