EMC kids get stiff fines, jail, second chances

NEW CANEY – Over 200 students stood before Pct. 4 Justice of the Peace James Metts on Thursday because of truancy. Some went to jail, some faced stiff fines and some were given another chance.

During the last school year, Judge Metts’ attempts to combat truancy in East Montgomery County gained nationwide attention after he sentenced 21 students to three days in jail after they repeatedly ignored court orders to attend school, introduced a new electronic monitoring/counseling program and ordered one mother to attend classes with her son. Another mother was sent to jail, charged with evidence tampering, a third-degree felony, after presenting a fake doctor’s note excusing her son’s five absences. Metts was widely praised for his tough stance and virtually the only criticism came from people who were somehow connected to those found in contempt of court.

Metts said about half of the students in court this week were first-timers, and he went easy on them. Around two-thirds of the students were from New Caney ISD, the rest were divided between Splendora and Caney Creek High School, a Conroe ISD school located just inside Pct. 4.

When the judge initially learns students are truant, he typically orders them to perform community service and / or pay a fine. Most of the new faces on Thursday were fined under $100 and court ordered to attend school. Any additional unexcused absences will prompt a mandatory “Show Cause” hearing, which gives the student an opportunity to explain to Judge Metts why the absence was unavoidable.

“If the absence was justifiable, such as illness, then they’re okay; but we cannot tolerate juveniles not being at school and out on the streets causing trouble,” Metts said.

One family, which includes a pair of brothers and their mother, has become very familiar in the Pct. 4 courtroom because of truancy over the past couple of years. Metts gave them chance after chance to redeem themselves. Unfortunately, the current school year began the same as the last one ended, with the boys (both minors) refusing to comply with court orders and attend school. Thursday Judge Metts went a step further, assessing fines at $14,000 for one boy and $17,000 for the other for their contempt of court.

Metts said, thankfully, those boys are the exception and most of the measures taken to curb truancy have been effective. In particular, the AIM program, or Attendance Improvement Management was a huge success when Judge Metts tested it on East County students during the 2008-2009 school year. The innovative new program requires children to carry a device with a GPS inside that can pinpoint their location to determine they are in school or wherever they are supposed to be at any given time. The device allows two-way communication and students are required to send text messages to the monitors several times each day and to communicate with a “coach” over the phone in the evenings. Metts chose AIM over the traditional ankle monitor, based on his belief that the AIM program taught responsibility and the two-way communication provided a show of concern and encouragement some troubled students have never known. Every child participating in the AIM program last year had positive results.

The program was so successful that county commissioners approved funding to supply 25 of the devices to the precinct for the current school year, which will serve 100 students by June. Metts said most of the students in the AIM program who returned to court Thursday performed very well. However, one student continued his truancy and was fined $500 for eight missed days, for a grand total of $4,000 in fines. All 25 AIM monitors were redistributed.

Metts said despite the one problematic student, everyone involved agreed the first phase of the program was a success.

Two seniors appeared before the judge, with only a semester of school remaining. As he has done for others, Metts offered them a deal. They could pay $500 on Thursday and start over, or they could agree to attend every day between now and their graduation. They would pay nothing if they kept their end of the agreement and showed the judge their diploma by June 15. However, if they accepted the judge’s offer, and then continued to be truant, they would owe $500 for their previous unexcused days and $500 per day for each additional unexcused absence. Both seniors accepted the judge’s offer.

Metts said a couple of other students were found in contempt of court for their habitual truancy and were offered a choice of a $500 fine or 72 hours in jail. They chose jail.

The judge reiterated his commitment to education, saying he believes there is no reason any student in his precinct should not receive a high school diploma.

“I want our children to attend school so they have every opportunity to succeed in life,” Metts said. “Unfortunately, not everyone takes advantage of their educational opportunity, and those who do not will learn another lesson – consequences.”

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