A recent Human Services Committee meeting was filled with uncharacteristic passion and vigor, as representatives from School Districts 202 and 65 and Evanston residents debated both the merits and faults of a proposed truancy ordinance. After the earnest pleas had settled, the measure was passed out of the Human Service Committee and introduced by the City Council for possible passage into law at the next Council meeting, Nov. 22.

“Sometimes it takes the whole community to get involved to save that one child,” said Vernon Clark, assistant principal of Evanston Township High School. While Mr. Clark emphasized that the ordinance did not originate with the school district but was instead the brainchild of the Restorative Justice Project, he spoke in favor of the measure. He said that while ETHS has a strict truancy policy, a City ordinance would provide the added leverage needed to reach chronically truant students and their parents.

“Give us a little more bite so we can prevent these kids from being on the street corners and in the house all day long. We want as many kids in school as we can possibly get. We want to educate them,” Mr. Clark urged.

Three Evanston residents spoke in opposition to the proposed truancy ordinance. Madelyn Ducre said she agreed that chronic truancy is an issue, but said that the ordinance was not the right approach. “We say we’re going to help these children, but then we put a threat on them?” asked Ms. Ducre. “I do not believe in the ordinance. We do not need it. We need to work with the student in the school.”

Another opposing speaker, Albert Gibbs, said he too is a product of the Evanston school system, having graduated in the same ETHS class as Second Ward Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste. Mr. Gibbs said that he believes that discipline should stem from the home, not from a City ordinance. “If you are genuine and sincere about resolving the issue of getting these kids off the streets and into schools, you must go to the source of the problem. It is not the children. It is where they lay their head,” Mr. Gibbs said.

Mr. Gibbs also said that the ordinance, which imposes a $100 fine on parents or guardians of truant students, would not have its intended impact. “The ones who are going to be the most cited, they’re not going to pay you a pecan,” emphasized Mr. Gibbs. “They can’t afford it.”

Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, also attended the meeting. “I believe, with just a few exceptions in this community, you have complete community support on this,” said Ald. Rainey. “I can’t imagine not adding any single process that would improve the attendance at school of our kids. A truant kid is a troubled kid.”

During the meeting, Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward, requested that the proposed ordinance be amended to impose penalties only on the parents or guardians, and not on the truant student, who in most cases is a minor.

Police Chief Richard Eddington was also present to clarify the role of Evanston police in enforcing the ordinance. “This is not a task for the uniformed police department,” explained Chief Eddington, who said he been a staunch supporter of the proposed ordinance since it was introduced more than a year ago. “These families and kids will be interacting with the part of the department responsible for drilling down and seeing what the issues are that are keeping these kids out of school,” the Chief said.

Ald. Jean-Baptiste, who was previously concerned that the ordinance called for too much police involvement, also agreed that the ordinance as amended should be sent to City Council for a vote. “If the call is for the City of Evanston to step in, to bring greater attention to those parents whose children are chronic truants so that we can push them into a discussion with other community agencies to bring them back to school, fine,” said Ald. Jean-Baptiste. 

The Committee voted 4-1 to approve the ordinance and send it along for full Council consideration. At Council, the measure was introduced on the consent agenda without debate.