In Ohio, parents are responsible for forcing their children to attend school, even to the point of doing actual jail time should a repeat truant continue to defy their authority. In a victory of sorts, Brian Gegner has been sprung from jail after serving 9 days because of his now 18-year-old daughter’s pitiful attendance record.
Mr. Gegner is out on what amounts to a perverse sort of probation. Brittany Gegner holds her father’s fate in her incompetent hands: Should she fail to obtain her G.E.D. by July 16th, it’s back to the pokey for her dad.
Usually stoic on the bench, [Juvenile Court Judge David] Niehaus got choked up as he spoke about why truancy is a big deal. Children who don’t get educations typically end up with low-paying jobs, committing crimes or relying on public assistance, he said.
Niehaus says he fears Brittany is “off to a lousy start.”
Brittany disputes that, and asserts she will be successful in life.
As a mother of an 18-month-old child, Brittany says she now realizes she passed up chances to learn important things when she missed so much school.
“There’s no reason,” she said. “I did not like school.”
Asked what she had learned from the case, Brittany replied: “There’s nothing the court has taught me that I didn’t already know.”
I’m sure that she knows it all. Many kids her age fallaciously believe the same thing. Ms. Gegner, who’s the mother of an 18-month-old baby, is the one who needs a lesson, not her father, a man who’s held a steady job for 14 years with a local hospital.
The larger question is whether the government has the right to actually incarcerate a parent for a minor child’s non-destructive behavioral issues. All of the things that Judge Niehaus says are true. But that does not make state interference right. Or required. People of all ages make mistakes and only the those that directly injure others should be categorized as criminal.
"But the law says…"
Well, what of it. The law is not holy. It is not infallible. It is often arcane, contradictory, and occasionally outright stupid. It is a tool that aids society in administering justice, nothing more.
Parents are being thrown in the slammer because their brats skip school – 11 in Butler County, Ohio alone last year. What’s next? If little Johnny doesn’t score X on his state skills assessment is his mom going to have to go to court to defend her right to be his parent? Or face going to prison because he can’t read?
Education is important. But when a child rebels against schooling to the extent that he/she habitually defies parental and school authorities, we really must consider whether having that child in school is productive for anyone involved – other students most of all. It’s ironic that we’re mandating the very thing – inclusion of behaviorally troubled children in mainstream classes – that virtually all front-line educators will tell you is wrong with the U.S.’s school system. Sheer genius.
There’s something fundamentally offensive about this Ohio law that should be challenged. Where are all the Constitutional lawyers when we need them? I suppose this case is not as glamorous as challenging the president’s right to conduct the national defense, but it’s just as important. Authoritarian laws that threaten the freedom and livelihood of parents no substitute for an education system that meets the needs of square pegs like Brittany Gegner. But instead of focusing on the problem – there’s nothing the student finds interesting about school – we’re calling out the sit-their-bored-butts-in-chairs police and jailing the parent. What about the kid? That’s your truant/criminal. I guess Ohioans are counting on the guilt the child might feel to act as a behavior modifier. Not saying that won’t work… But…
I hope a reporter is there in July to ask Brittany what she learned from the experience of getting – or not getting – her G.E.D. I’ll bet she’d say something like, "There’s nothing those classes taught me that I didn’t already know."
I know that’s right.