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Under improved truancy law, Pa. parents still face jail and even higher fines

Nov. 14, 2016 – Philadelphia Inquirer – by Kathy Boccella

Ellen DiNino, a 55-year-old mother of seven from Reading, had accumulated more than $2,000 in fines and court costs for her children’s chronic school absences. With no way to pay, she was sent to jail for two days under Pennsylvania’s truancy law.

 The first night, she complained of chest pains and difficulty breathing. A doctor would see her the next day, she was told. But the next day, June 8, 2014, she was dead of heart failure.

From DeNino’s death grew a groundswell to radically change the way the state dealt with truancy. The law’s harsh penalties, critics said, created a kind of debtors’ prison for poor families already buried by social and financial crises.

But what has emerged from the sausage grinder of lawmaking in Harrisburg – a truancy overhaul package signed by Gov. Wolf earlier this month – isn’t quite what reformers had in mind.

Advocates for low-income students say the new law risks driving some of Pennsylvania’s most economically burdened families further into the shadows.

“There is concern that increased fines will continue to be imposed upon poor families and families of color, and fail to eliminate the barriers to truancy that their children are facing,” said Alex Dutton, a law fellow at the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

Nonetheless, Dutton and some educators also praised aspects of the new law – particularly the requirement that schools come up with early-intervention plans, in the hope of keeping truancy cases out of the courts.

Read the full article at the Philadelphia Inquirer.