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Roswell’s new schools chief takes on truancy

March 23, 2013 • Local News

The mother of a 6-year-old student faced a Chaves County District Court judge Thursday as the first defendant in Roswell Independent School District’s new anti-truancy program. She was found guilty of allowing her child to rack up more than 10 unexcused absences.

Norma Rutiaga pleaded “no contest” to one count of failing to enforce the district’s Compulsory School Attendance policy. Rutiaga’s first-grade daughter, who attends Pecos Elementary School, actually has 22 days of unexcused absences, according to school records.

The school district’s policy states that students are allowed up to 10 unexcused absences before the district can take action to investigate the truancy problem, explained Superintendent Tom Burris.

Burris, who started in Roswell last year after leaving the Truth or Consequences School District, said he feels strongly about fully enforcing the districts truancy statues.

A new partnership with the City of Roswell’s Juvenile Parole and Probation Office and with the support of city officials, the district’s new program to start prosecuting parents is in full swing.

Rutiaga’s case was settled minutes prior to the official court hearing.

“The state is ready to proceed but the parties have come to an agreement,” Asst. District Attorney Emily Maher told District Court Judge Charles Currier.

The agreement included Rutiaga pleading no contest, paying a $25 fine and serving 50 hours of community service. Rutiaga’s attorney also told the judge she would promise to get her child “back to school” and arrive by 7:45 a.m.

Instead, the judge imposed a $100 fine, suspending $75 of it, and demanded the 50 hours of service be provided to the school. Through a Spanish-speaking interpreter, Currier explained to Rutiaga his concerns.

“I would like (your daughter) to be involved with after school programs. (She) cannot have additional unexcused absences,” Currier said. “The next time any of your children have absences, the penalty for you will potentially be much greater.”

The judge told Rutiaga it was important for her to understand why truancy was dangerous.

“The single most accurate predictor of failure — not just in school, but in life — is truancy,” Currier said. “No more unexcused absences for (your daughter).”

“OK,” Rutiaga answered.

City of Roswell Mayor Del Jurney sat through the court trial, as well as Burris and other officials.

“We were really glad to see the judge and the judicial system support the school and good attendance as they are,” Burris said.

Burris said if the district can get the students to stay in school, community problems can be lessened in the long term, as far as crime and unemployment.

The district has asked the city’s probation and parole officers to stop school-aged kids in the community during the school day to see identification so they can figure out which students are missing class without an excuse, Burris said.

“We need to promote good attendance in schools,” Burris said. “We’ve got awesome teachers in the district. We can teach every kid. We just need the kids in the classroom so we can do our job.”

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