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Ball in public's court when it comes to education

Date: 10/5/2009

By Marie P. Grady

Special to Reminder Publications

It's 9 in the morning on a school day.

Do you know where your children are?

If you dropped them off at school, you may think they are there. You may even expect them to be.

Turns out you are dead wrong.

As long as your kids aren't threatening anyone, or creating a danger to themselves, they are free to walk out of school.


That was the ruling recently in a Springfield, Mass., federal court case filed by parents who drove their children to school only to find out later they were allowed to leave. The parents claimed that the school system interfered with their fundamental rights under the constitutions of the United States and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to raise their children as they saw fit. They also claimed that the Springfield School System's policy of not physically restraining children who leave school without permission deprived the children of the right to be free from educational abuse and neglect.

The ruling was reported as school officials announced a tough new truancy plan employing deputy sheriffs to take wandering youngsters off the streets and get them the counseling they need. The school system, to its credit, has made some progress in reducing the truancy rate thanks to a plan implemented last year by Superintendent Alan J. Ingram.

Still, not long after this court decision was announced, the problem of violence particularly among young people sparked calls for the city to adopt a form of marshal law.

The irony of it all is striking, but the court decision itself was not. As U.S. Magistrate Kenneth P. Neiman pointed out in a decision written July 17, the United States Supreme Court has consistently recognized the fundamental right to freedom of personal choice in family life. Government, in short, may not interfere with private family decisions, absent abuse or neglect of a child. But this case did not involve state interference with a parent-child relationship, he wrote.

In a novel legal argument, Attorney Bryan Clauson attempted to graft the standards applied to parents onto the school systems entrusted with their children's care. In the past, Clauson has argued that the state, standing in as a parent of foster children, has the same duty as parents to get their children to school. If parents fail that duty, they are subject to penalties under state law.

But the judge, perhaps foreseeing the complications when school personnel are forced into confrontations with children attempting to leave, wrote, "If anything, the relief sought by plaintiffs, namely, requiring defendants to physically restrain their children from leaving school, could well subject their children to the risk of physical abuse at the hands of school personnel."

According to decisions of the Massachusetts and U.S. Supreme courts, there is no fundamental right to education in these United States. At the same time, this country is confronted with the fact that half of children in large urban districts such as Springfield walk out of school, never to return again.

Clauson congratulates Ingram and the school system for efforts to address the truancy problem. But he is not giving up this battle. He is appealing the decision to the First Circuit Federal Court of Appeals.

His argument? Parents who entrust their children to a public school system should expect it to educate their children, and not look the other way when they head for the exit sign.

"If children can simply walk out of school whenever they please, as many do, the message is loud and clear to teenage children."

Judges interpret the law but they don't make it. They cannot be held accountable for a society that tolerates failure, on a massive scale, when it comes to education. That is the province of lawmakers, and, ultimately, every one of us.

It's 9 in the morning on a school day. Do you know where your children are?

Marie Grady has written about literacy issues as liaison to the Literacy Works Program of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County Inc. She can be reached at