Bernadette Thomas lives across the street from Sheehy Elementary in Merced where her children attend school.
But the 45-year-old Merced mother was arrested last week for failing to send her son to school. Thomas was one of 10 Merced parents arrested Aug. 30 in a law enforcement truancy crackdown. Each parent was charged with misdemeanor counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, the Merced County District Attorney’s Office reported.
Thomas said school and law enforcement officials haven’t done enough to help her children get to the school across the street and said authorities simply wanted to humiliate her and the other parents.
“The police came to the house and yanked me out my door,” she said. “It was like a circus. They were just embarrassing me again.”
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Merced City School District officials, however, said they turned to law enforcement after exhausting other options trying to get the parents to send their children to class.
Many of the students had a long history of chronic absenteeism, stretching back three school years.
The children of the 10 parents arrested missed an average of 62 days of last year’s 180-day school year. One of the children missed 103 days, and all of the students missed a minimum of 25 days, district officials said.
School officials said the lengthy process to get these kids back in school started with numerous phone calls, letters and home visits. When that didn’t work, parents then were invited to meetings with the School Attendance Review Team. The next step involved sending cases to a hearing before the Student Attendance Review Board, commonly known as SARB.
During the process, the district refers parents and families to numerous agencies to help eliminate barriers preventing students from getting to school. For example, parents will be referred to the Valley Crisis Center for domestic violence issues, Merced County Behavioral Health for substance abuse help or Merced County Human Services Agency for financial support or housing, officials said.
“Everything we do at the Merced City School District is to support our students, and that includes helping their parents/guardians overcome any obstacles that might keep their children from being in class,” district officials said in a statement. “We have a lengthy and thorough process of reaching out and providing resources, and it’s only after exhausting every other possible option that a case is referred to the Merced County District Attorney’s Office.”
But Thomas said the process doesn’t always work, and her family fell through the cracks.
“My kids just got to cross the street to get to school,” Thomas said. “My 9-year-old daughter had a lot of problems going to school last year. I asked the principal at the elementary school to help me explain to her the importance of school. I asked for the number to a police officer who could come out and explain to her the importance of school. This went on for most of last year. I never got a response.”
‘Help my child understand the importance of school’
Thomas said her daughter was being harassed by another student, and when she talked to school staff about it, she said they “brushed it under the rug.”
She said her son has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, anxiety and more. He sees counselors and psychiatrists multiple times a month. She worked with the school so he could take medication during school hours and received a letter from his doctors to excuse the absences after her arrest, she said.
Thomas said she planned to go to the SARB hearing scheduled in May, but her husband had a stroke that morning and was rushed to the hospital. She said communication with school and district staff was poor.
“When I come to you for help when my child is not coming to school, don’t brush it under rug. Help my child understand the importance of school,” she said. “All I want is someone to stop being against us and thinking we’re bad parents and listen to our side of the story.”
Another parent who was arrested, Fabiola Higareda, said her daughter was being bullied at Givens Elementary, and she wasn’t satisfied with the school’s response.
“I tried getting help but it took a long time for them to listen to me,” Higareda wrote in a comment on the Sun-Star’s Facebook page. “SARB didn’t help. They didn’t even listen. They (sent) me straight to court. How is that helping us?”
Higareda, 44, said law enforcement should have more important crimes to worry about.
“I know the importance of a good education and want my kids to be the best they can be,” she said.
District officials said bullying allegations are “taken very seriously.”
“We cannot comment specifically about any one case due to student privacy laws, but all of our schools have a zero tolerance policy for bullying or harassment of any kind,” district officials said.
‘Parents need to take it seriously’
Parents picking up their children at Wright Elementary School on Wednesday afternoon said it’s a parent’s responsibility to make sure their children get an education.
“There’s no excuse for a child to not be in school,” said Allison Fagundes, whose two sons attend Wright Elementary. “My dad told me the only reason to miss school is if you’re dead. School is very important for a child’s development. Parents need to take it seriously.”
Robert Moreno said when he heard the news, it was “crazy” that people didn’t send their children to school. The arrests were an appropriate punishment, he said.
“My son knows what happens if he doesn’t go to school,” Moreno said.
His son chimed in: “He’ll get arrested!”
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477