Judge Raima Ballinger stared down at the teenage boy before her, pausing a moment to consider his seven recent absences from school and failure to complete any of his court-ordered community service.
“He has lost his driver’s license,” she decides. “Right now, it’s gone.”
The boy tears up but accepts the consequence. He’s there, he tells her, out of respect and not to argue. He’s well known to Ballinger and Sonoma County’s Truancy Court for missing too many days in school without an excuse, behavior that already led to community service at an earlier court appearance.
The Truancy Court is a collaboration between the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, the courts and the Sonoma County Office of Education to help guide truant youngsters back to the classroom. Authorities say the minors who appear—ranging in age from 13 to 17—are there for their own good, not to be punished.
“It’s well known that there’s a higher percentage of adults who end up in prison who dropped out of school compared to those who stayed in,” said Sonoma County District Attorney Stephan Passalacqua. “We want kids to be busy in school and vocational training instead of getting in trouble and committing crime.”
Last year, Sonoma County school districts sent 2,773 “second warning” letters to the parents of truant children. By county policy, these letters are also sent to the District Attorney, which in turn sends its own letter to the family explaining the law and the consequences of breaking it.
The letters are enough to persuade most students to stop skipping school, but tough love is needed in some cases. Of those 2,773 letters sent, SCOE only sent 90 cases to the District Attorney for Truancy Court last year.
Many of those 90 students—like the boy who lost his license—are called before the judge to explain. One-by-one they come before Ballinger, but their experiences can be very different.
For some, like the girl who hadn’t been to school in nearly a month, Ballinger appears to be everything like the hardnosed judges made famous on television. The girl appears without her mother—who she claimed ate bad sushi two days before—and admits she hasn’t been to school since Nov. 13. The lack of a parent or guardian irks the judge who questions the excuse.
“It may be time for her mom to go downtown,” said Ballinger, referring to adult court.
“My mother?” asked the girl, sobbing. “What has she done?”
“You’re 15 years old,” answered Ballinger. “She’s responsible for you.”
Ballinger tells her she’ll need to start coming to court every week to check-in until she’s back at school on a regular basis. “I’ll see you next week,” said the judge. “I really need to see you in school between now and then.”
Many of the others who have returned to school see a much warmer, motherly side of Ballinger. She welcomes them back and celebrates their successes. She gives advice and encourages them to stand up for themselves and what they need in school.
“You can’t give up,” she told another girl who returned for her check-in with a glowing report from her high school. “You can’t ever give up. If you think you’re right you really need to keep plugging away at it.”
The girl is still struggling in one class, but is commended for her success in another and her overall effort. “What are we making?” Ballinger asked her. “We’re making a pattern. Something you don’t even have to think about.”
Even the boy who lost his license sees warmth as Ballinger encourages him to finish his community service so she can return his license to him early next year. When he exits the judge and representatives from SCOE and the DA agree: “he’s a good kid.”
Patricia Law, the Director of Alternative Education for the Windsor Unified School District, called Truancy Court a valuable tool for the community. “Sometimes it’s easy for parents to ignore letters when it’s just a communication from the school, especially if they’ve had a history of attendance issues,” she said. “Once you include an outside agency like the District Attorney, I’m sure it catches their attention.”
Ballinger attributes the success of Truancy Court to a close-knit team that includes Deputy District Attorney Esther Lemus, SCOE liaison Tom Joynt, herself and the staffs of each of their respective organizations. The three each spoke last week to their dedication to the program and the need for a consistent group who can track individual student successes and failures.
“The Truancy Court itself is very unique,” said Lemus. “We all come together as a team to work with a child to remember any problems they’re having at school. There’s a lot of issues at play with many of these kids. Some are afraid to go to school because someone has threatened to fight them.”
Lemus oversees thousands of letters sent by Sonoma County school districts and drafts letters to their parents explaining the law and the consequences for not coming to school. Under the state’s Education Code students who do not go to school can be fined $100, assigned community service and could even have their license revoked. Parents who do not send their children to school can face stiffer punishment if charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Unlike adult court, the District Attorney would much rather resolve an issue with a child than punish them.
“It’s our hope we can get these kids back in school and back on track and it’s very rewarding when that does happen” said Lemus. “We work hard to resolve whatever the issue is. We’ve seen kids come in with a certain demeanor and after working with them for a couple months they’re completely different people.”
Helping individual students inspires Joynt, a 40-year veteran of the education system. While not every truant child will return to school, he’s driven by the ones who he can help. He likens his work to the story of the old man who chances upon a child tossing starfish back into the sea. The old man sees the thousands of starfish washed up on the shore and considers the futility of trying to save them all.
“There are so many you can’t save them all so what does it matter?” asks the old man.
The child throws another back to the sea and replies simply, “it matters to this one.”