Parents Jailed For Kids' Truancy

Three parents have become the first to be jailed for their children's chronic truancy under a new law created to combat the problem. Lackawanna County Judge Chester Harhut sentenced them to two weeks in behind bars for not getting their children to school regularly.

While observers of the new law say the punishment is too severe, Scranton City School District Superintendent John R. Williams says the parents were given fair warning. "We don't think it's extreme because we had actually taken the time to meet with about 90 some odd families before the school year started. We told them what the new rules were going to be," he told CBS News. "We offered them the services of drug and alcohol treatment services, so it's only really the most severe of the severe cases that went to jail this week."

Williams has become the spokesman for a joint effort between the school district and police, under the leadership of Judge Harhut, who devised the program.

Williams says that examples of a "chronic truant" include a 15-year-old who was absent from school more than 100 days this year after school had been in session for only about 120 days. Another child, a six-year-old kindergarten student, was absent for more than 40 school days.

Now, Williams says, the children of the jailed parents are in school every day. "We have some preliminary data that actually tells us that it is working," he said.

Two of the kids who are children of single parents are in the custody of the local children and youth services while their mothers serve out their sentences.

Helen Newton, one of the parents arrested, has seven children and no criminal record. She told CBS News Correspondent Diana Olick that she has "never had any trouble with the law" and was "scared to death" when she was taken to jail.

Newton has been locked up for a week now, because her teenage daughter chronically skips school. "It's not like I didn't know and it's not like I wasn't doing anything. I knew this was a problem," she says.

Last summer, the school summoned Newton and dozens of other parents of truants to a meeting, and announced a get-tough program on truancy. For the first time in the nation, an entire school district told parents to get their kids to school or else.

But Newton did not meet with counselors or show up when summoned to the district magistrate. Judge Harhut felt that she, and two other parents, should be punished.

Still, a distraught Newton says she tried to remedy the problem. "...I'm separated from all my children now and for what? For trying? I really did. I feel like I, as her mother, did everything I could for her to go to school," she says.

Williams stands firm on the new policy. "She did not see to it that her child returned to school and she failed to take advantage of any of the supports, essentially thumbed her nose at the system," he says.

Truancy is one of the oldest prolems around, but officials in Scranton believe it may be the cause of some new ones: rising crime and drug use. That's why they say truancy can no longer be just the school's responsibility. "I honestly believe all of these problems are not only school problems and not only court problems, they're community problems," Harhut says.

The judge says that if Newton and the other jailed parents can't get their children to school regularly, he'll put the kids in foster care or juvenile detention. For Newton, it means she could lose her freedom and her child.