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Truants on trial

Judge says court is needed to make school a priority


THE HAMMER of persuasion and responsibility and not a little frustration hovered just above the blond head of the 14-year-old seventhgrader in Courtroom III. She didn’t appear to notice.

No excuses, she told Judge Eileen A. Olds. No reason for the 31 unexcused days absent from Hugo A. Owens Middle School since late January. That’s when Judge Olds of the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court had ordered the girl, already a truant, to miss no more classes.

Some days the girl slept in. Some days when her mother was home she left on time, but hung out in nearby woods. She missed or cancelled two drug-test appointments.

She admitted to smoking marijuana recently, so Olds told waiting officials that an on-the-spot drug test wouldn’t be necessary. ‘‘You don’t think there’s any value in an education?’’ Olds asked. The girl hesitated: ‘‘Personally?’’ Ten days in Tidewater Detention Home, Olds ordered. Substance-abuse program after her release.

‘‘Bye,’’ the girl called over her shoulder to her mother as bailiffs led her into custody, sounding more like she was off to a 7-Eleven for milk.

This start to a recent day in Chesapeake’s truancy court summed up in one blue-jeaned package much of what exasperates Olds:

Students who couldn’t care less about education. Clueless or overwhelmed parents. Other family or personal problems — divorce, substance abuse, mental health — that push schooling way down on student to-do lists.

‘‘It’s not a priority anymore,’’ Olds said. ‘‘That’s why the court was needed, to say it’s a priority.’’

The law couldn’t be much simpler: Go to school until you graduate or until you turn 18.

The once-a-month truancy court has operated here since May 2001, when court and school officials joined forces to give the law teeth. A similar court began earlier in Norfolk.

Teams of educators, court and social-services representatives decide whether to refer truant students to the court. Olds tells these first-timers — about 60 at the April session — that they’re starting fresh. They and their parents sign 18-month court orders agreeing to attend school every day unless excused, to behave, and for parents to help enforce the orders. Olds sometimes adds special conditions, such as substance-abuse treatment or mental-health evaluations.

Chesapeake records show that in the first year of the program 226 students were referred to court, 121 received court orders and 72 percent of those obeyed the orders. Five abusive homes were uncovered, also.

Olds estimated that the noreturn rate has since improved to better than 90 percent. ‘‘A resounding success,’’ she called the program.

But the first dozen cases of the day came from an underclass of chronic school skippers who continued despite her court orders. The Virginian-Pilot was granted access to the closed courtroom on the condition that students not be identified.

Today’s truants are different than from her own school days, Olds said: They lack respect for education or expectations for a better life from their parents.

‘‘One of the biggest shocks I had whenI became a judge was that parents don’t push education anymore,’’ the judge said. ‘‘This is blatant ‘I’m not going to school, and not only I’m not going, but the whole family doesn’t care.’ ’’

School officials still talk about the father who explained to the judge that God told him to not send his four children to school.

Olds turned to the mother: ‘‘Does God talk to you, too?’’

‘‘No,’’ the mother deadpanned. ‘‘He only talks to him.’’

The law aside, Olds sees education as hope, particularly for disadvantaged children.

‘‘The reason I’m so passionate about it is, it’s an equalizer,’’ Olds said. ‘‘I guess that’s my biggest hope: that they’ll see that, yeah, dad may be in prison, your mom may be on welfare, your brother might be in trouble, but you’ve got a chance.’’

The lesson is tougher for some than others.

The next case was a no-show. Olds issueda summons for the mother.

The third was a success— a school official said the student passed his high-school equivalency test in March. ‘‘Great,’’ Olds said, dismissing the case.

Her smile quickly dissolved.

‘‘Where is he?’’ Olds asked the mother of amissing Oscar F. Smith High School freshman. ‘‘In the bed, asleep,’’ the mother replied helplessly. Another summons. Olds called more cases. The students were black and white, boy and girl, tall and short, high school and middle school. Some days, they’re even elementary school.

Some grinned. Some cried. Asked about their chronic absences, they and their parents mumbled about illnesses and medication problems and bus fights and closed classes that they needed to graduate and new school clerks who must’ve mislaid messages and doctor’s notes left in textbooks at grandparents’ homes.

Olds accepted it all, because there always were days left unaccounted for, always an admission that some had been skipped, and those skips violated her order, and that was that.

A Western Branch High student completed more than his required 10 hours of community service— ‘‘I didn’t want to leave in the middle of ajob,’’ he said — but continued to miss individual classes. Old reiterated that ‘‘all day’’ means all day when it came to school attendance.

A brother and sister stood together. He suffers from learning problems, the mother said. He also apparently lied about being suspended from the bus — something that bus drivers aren’t authorized to do. The girl said she sometimes goes to a friend’s house on school days, where the friend’s mother does her hair.

‘‘I thought you gone to school three days at least,’’ the mother said, sounding surprised.

‘‘I’ve heard so many excuses I’ve lost count,’’ Olds said, sounding annoyed.

She concluded that the siblings had ‘‘zero supervision,’’ and ordered them into detention for violating her order and, she said, for their safety.

A Great Bridge High sophomore’s anxiety disorder keeps him off his bus. Olds ordered medication and counseling.

A boy, recently back living with his mother after his uncleguardian kicked him out, asked to entera high-school equivalency program.

‘No, you still have to go to school,’’ Olds answered. ‘‘Tomorrow morning. Western Branch High School.’’

Other parents said they had no idea that their son had missed more than a month of school days. They said they called in when he was sick, and heard nothing from the school the other times. The boy said the school was out to get him. Parents and boy quibbled, but still couldn’t account for about 15 missed days.

‘‘So you think it’s all about record-keeping?’’ Olds asked.

‘‘Uh-huh,’’ the father insisted, then added dismissively: ‘‘I missed more days than that when I was in school.’’

Olds stared at him.

‘‘This is about the most egregious — well, let me tell it this way,’’ Olds said evenly, searching for words. ‘‘To say it has always been the school’s fault. … And to say it’s not that important … ’’

Olds suddenly asked a bailiff to read aloud the boy’s long, gray T-shirt: ‘‘Things not to say toa police officer: ‘‘Oink, oink. ‘‘No — you assume the position. ‘‘Are you the guy from the Village People?’’ Even the bailiff laughed. ‘‘That’s the problem,’’ Olds said. Ten days’ detention. No driver’s license for 90 days.

Mother cried.

‘‘What about my job?’’ the boy asked.

‘‘You’ve got to go to school before you worry about a job,’’ Olds answered.

Referrals to court have increased this school year to about 450, including repeats, said John F. ‘‘Jack’’ Hannon of the school division. But schools report that the program is having an impact, he said.

‘‘They have indicated that the word is out that people are being locked up for truancy, so they are seeing fewer kids skipping school,’’ Hannon said.

‘‘It’s much better than nothing, which is what we had before,’’ said Jamesina B. ‘‘Jamie’’ Whitehurst, assistant principal of the Chesapeake Alternative School. ‘‘And it’s making parents sit up and take notice.’’

Shortly after 1 p.m., individual cases cleared, came time for ‘‘cattle call’’ — the group appearance of scores of new referrals who will receive court orders.

Olds reminded students, parents and guardians filling the courtroom that attendance at school is mandatory, that chronic truancy often is a symptom of deeper family troubles, and that students in violation can go to the detention home and their parents to jail.

Eyebrows shot up.

Learning had begun.

Olds has students sign 18-month court orders agreeing to attend school and behave. Parents must agree to enforce the orders.

Parents and students are sworn in for Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. Their faces were not permitted to be photographed.


MARTIN SMITH-RODDEN/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Parents and their truant children wait outside the courtroom for their time in front of the judge.




Children First

Eileen Olds says destiny made her a trailblazer.

By Arthur Hill
Posted August 11, 2008, 3:31 PM EST






Eileen Olds
Photo by Bill Manley

My calling is to make a difference, says Eileen Olds (Psychology 79). I believe that I have been called to make a difference in the lives of the children and the families that I serve.

Chance meetings and failures with silver liningsotherwise known as destinyhave led her to where she is, says Olds, a judge on the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court in Chesapeake, Va., since 1995, the first woman and the first African American in the citys history to sit on the bench. When I look back on my life, I can see there were moments of revelation. I now understand that I have gone through a natural progression of events. You join a path that was chosen for you to take.

Attending the University of Virginia was on that predestined path. A chance meeting with Lloyd Ricks, then dean of admissions, led to the Chesapeake native entering the fourth class that included women. And she says that if she had not run for state legislaturea race she lost by 87 votesshe might not have become a judge. I was appointed at least in part by the efforts of my opponent after he took office, she says.

Its a destiny filled with trailblazing and perseverance. After being elected her middle schools first African-American student-council president, the school abolished the council, presumably to prevent her from taking office.

After graduating with honors from the University, she became one of four African Americans in her class at the College of William and Marys Marshall-Wythe School of Law, the first African American in private practice in Chesapeake and, at 26, one of the youngest presidents of her local NAACP chapter. Last year, the 3,000-member American Judges Association, an international organization headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., elected her its presidentthe first African-American and only the fourth woman president in its 50-year history.

Early in her career, juvenile justice became her passion. Olds realized that the most devastating and gut-wrenching criminal cases were those involving the abuse and neglect of children. I know absolutely that dysfunction in families has an enormous impact on the futures of innocent children, she says.

Over the years, she has fulfilled her goal to protect and defend them. I recognized my ability to advocate effectively, she said. My selection as a juvenile and domestic relations judge was a natural progression for me.

At the American Judges Association, Olds has established an outreach program called Tell It to the Judge, a multiyear effort to seek input from the general public about the judicial process. The AJA is holding events around the country that allow citizens to talk to panels of judges about their experience with the judicial process and offer recommendations for change. The most important thing that citizens are looking for is an opportunity to be heardnot necessarily a favorable outcome, says Olds.

Olds also believes the nations judges will gain from opinions and recommendations of citizens whose lives have been changed by decisions made in the nations courts. Were the gatekeepers of the system, she says. We have to better understand how others perceive us.

What does the future hold for Olds? Except for her belief that her travels along a predetermined path of progress will continue, she has no idea. She wants to offer a message of hope and possibility to children, and shell go where the Lord leads me to deliver her message. Its worked well so far, she says.



Topic: Twin Expectations – Overcoming Adversity

Speakers – Francine Olds, M.D.(left) and Judge Eileen Olds (right)

Francine Annette Olds has lived most of her life in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia, having graduated from Indian River High School in Chesapeake with highest honors in 1975.  She went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree with distinction in nursing from the University of Virginia in 1979.  She then worked for three years as a gynecologic oncology nurse at Duke University Hospital.  It was there that she realized that her calling was to a higher and greater service as a physician and as an advocate and provider for women’s general and reproductive health.  In 1986, she received a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.  From there, she was awarded a coveted internship and residency in gynecology and obstetrics at the Johns Hopkins hospital in Baltimore, Maryland.

Judge Eileen Anita Olds is a 1975 honors graduate of Indian River High School in Chesapeake, Virginia.  She received a Bachelor of Arts degree with distinction from the University of Virginia in 1979, and a Juris Doctorate degree from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary in 1982.  Judge Olds began her legal career in 1982 as a private practitioner, specializing in criminal defense and domestic relations law.  In addition to her private practice, Judge Olds was appointed in 1984 by the Attorney General of Virginia to represent the State Department of Highways and Transportation and was reappointed to that post in 1986.  She also served as a Commissioner in Chancery and as a Divorce Commissioner.  Judge Olds’ 1995 appointment to the bench was historic in that she became the first female and one of two first African-American judges in the First Judicial Circuit in Virginia. Most recently Judge Olds authored a book, Twin Expectations, Raising the Bar, Raising Expectations, Raising Children, which is a “must read” for those raising or influencing our children.  Judge Olds currently presides as a Judge of the Chesapeake Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, having served four years as Chief Judge.