A proposed ordinance seeking to make skipping school illegal in Evanston met with a chilly reception at a recent Human Services Committee meeting. The proposed ordinance, which would subject chronic truants to administrative hearings and fines, is needed to put some teeth into a program designed to solve the truancy problem through greater community involvement, according to members of the Evanston Restorative Justice Committee, the organization that authored the proposed ordinance.

Doubts regarding City involvement in school matters, police involvement in enforcement, and costs undermined general agreement by the Committee.

Rationale for the Proposal

Christina Cortesi, social worker in the student assistance program at Evanston Township High School and a member of the Restorative Justice Committee, said the District (202) processed about 120 truancy cases this year. Of those cases, about 60 met a dead end as students and family members were not reachable or simply did not respond to efforts to correct the problem, she said.

The general procedure, sending a series of three letters before turning the matter over to the Cook County Regional Office of Education, simply did not work with these students, said Ms. Cortesi. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that the Regional Office ran up to three months behind schedule in responding to referrals this year, meaning an “entire school year is over” before the Regional Office gets to some truancy issues, she added.

A pilot program set up by the Restorative Justice Committee now encourages truants and their families, on a volunteer basis, to appear before a Community Accountability Board (CAB) rather than have their cases referred to the Regional Board. An executive summary attached to the proposed ordinance said the CAB is composed of a “coalition of school staff, the truant youth and family and relevant community members that may be of personal support to the family.” CAB brings a Restorative Justice approach to truancy issues, said Ms. Cortesi.

Ms. Cortesi and Patrice Quehl, a youth services social worker for the Evanston Police Department said CAB tries to understand and help the truant solve any underlying problems that might be contributing to the truancy.

Police Chief Richard Eddington, speaking in support of the proposed ordinance, described CAB and the Restorative Justice concept as a “team approach” to the truancy problem. The ordinance is designed to put some teeth into the voluntary program by legally mandating the referral of truancy matters to CAB.

The proposed ordinance recognizes that schools have policies in place and would incorporate a mandatory referral of all truancy cases to the CAB. Enforcement would be stronger under the propsoed ordinace: If truancy continues, then a violation of the ordinance “may result,” and the police and School District “are authorized to issue a violation of the section.” Violators would be subject to fines of up to $100; however it is not clear whether the student or the parents or guardians would be responsible for paying the fine.

The Committee’s Concerns

The Human Services Committee members voiced four concerns: the origins of the ordinance, the enforcement mechanism, the usefulness of the ordinance in meeting its stated goals, and the wisdom of City involvement in school matters.

Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, asked whether other agencies had been involved in the creation of the proposed ordinance, specifically School Districts 65 and 202 and non-governmental support agencies. When told that many agencies and the school districts voiced support for the ordinance at monthly Restorative Justice meetings, Ald. Grover voiced dissatisfaction, saying. “I want you to get comments from these agencies, not just at Restorative Justice meetings, about this particular ordinance.”

Several Committee members expressed concern over the enforcement provisions. First, involving the City’s Police Department in school truancy did not sit well with Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, who stated flatly, “I do not want the police involved in the enforcement of this.” Assurances by Ms. Cortesi and Ms. Quehl that enforcement and penalties were not the goal, but that the hope was that all families would respond to the prodding from CAB did not quell the rising doubts, nor did Chief Eddington’s description of the penalty provisions as “the absolute last tool in the toolbox.”

Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptise, 2nd Ward, agreed with Ald. Holmes. Ald. Grover then speculated about a worst- case scenario: “Are we going to arrest someone for failure to pay [a truancy fine]?”

The usefulness of the ordinance in meeting its stated goal also came under fire. When Ms. Cortesi explained that the current truancy procedure was simply not working for some students and that a Restorative Justice approach, with community involvement and “ownership” offered hope for a better outcome, Ald. Holmes did not disagree. She did, however, ask, “How does the ordinance fold into that?” Ald Grover followed by asking, “Do we have to make [truancy] illegal?”

Ms. Quehl responded that the ordinance sought only to form another layer of intervention between the school and Regional Board. The connection between a Restorative Justice approach and making an activity illegal under City law seemed elusive to the Committee.

Ms. Quehl explained that the idea came from similar ordinances in other cities such as Peoria, Niles, and Skokie. But when Alderman Mark Tendam, 6th Ward, asked if they looked at data concerning whether a truancy ordinance helped in other cities, the answer from Ms. Quehl was, “No, but I can try to get that for you.”

Underlying many of the Committee’s concerns seemed to be a general, and sometimes explicitly stated, unwillingness to get the City involved in school affairs. Ald. Holmes was among them, asking directly: “I don’t understand why the City’s involved. Why isn’t this at the School Board? This is a school issue. Why the City?”

Ald. Jean-Baptiste said, “I agree that we need to find ways to help youth who are falling through the cracks. … [but truancy] does not seem to be a responsibility the City can take on.”

Next Steps

The ordinacne will remain in committee. Committee Chair Jean-Baptiste invited the ordinance’s authors to bring other parties in more directly and the police to “come back and articulate why the police need to be involved in enforcement.”