When parents of elementary-aged children in the Richmond Public School System come before the Hon. Mary Langer on charges of failure to send their children to school, it’s not in a traditional courtroom. Instead, they meet in an auditorium at the Martin Luther King Junior Middle School. It’s part of a new effort aimed at encouraging parents to engage with schools, and to provide support in addressing any obstacles that get in between their children and a strong attendance record. One crucial component of this innovative new program is the pro bono legal assistance from students in the University of Richmond School of Law Children’s Defense Clinic.

Launched in 2019, the Parents + Attendance = Student Success initiative, otherwise known as the P+A=SS Docket, positions student success as a collaborative effort. Spearheaded by Judge Langer of the Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in partnership with Richmond Public Schools, the docket is for parents of elementary-aged children who have missed 18 or more school days in a year.

Here’s how it works: Parents whose children have an excessive number of absences receive a parental participation petition to appear in front of Judge Langer at MLK Middle School. In advance of the court date, they’re invited to meet with representatives of the Children’s Defense Clinic. Law students help explain the circumstances around the proceeding: that this is a civil matter, not a criminal charge; that the clinic will represent and advocate for the parents free of charge; and that the end goal is to improve the student’s attendance and success in school. “Normally these parents would not be provided with court-appointed counsel, and would face these charges alone,” explained Professor Julie McConnell, director of the Children’s Defense Clinic. “We’re providing a pro bono service that makes a huge difference.”

On the day of the proceeding, Richmond Law students once again meet with each parent before they appear in front of Judge Langer, who learns about the circumstances surrounding each case and issues an order. Such orders typically include a directive to meet with onsite representatives from local community resource agencies in areas ranging from housing to health services. It’s what McConnell describes as “a community court model.” 

The goal of the P+A=SS Docket is not necessarily to discipline, but to find the root causes surrounding children’s absenteeism and find support mechanisms for their parents. “The hope was that by moving the docket to a school we would help the parents understand that there was assistance and support in resolving the problems they face, as well as improve the engagement with the school system overall,” said Judge Langer. “I believe that the parents who come to MLK still sense the importance of the issue, but feel the supportive nature of the docket and the hope that issues are resolved, not ‘punished.’”  

And as McConnell explains, the end hope is “for parents to feel like they have a legitimate seat at the table … and that they have every right to be engaged, and that teachers and administrators should communicate with them, and that they should be able to communicate with teachers and administrators.”

The school system takes a number of steps before escalating to the P+A=SS Docket, including parental outreach and invitations for face-to-face meetings. But often challenges in families’ home and personal lives create barriers that can feel insurmountable. Parents of children with chronic illnesses, for example, might be too wrapped up in health care to take the time to explain their special needs to the school. Many children come from single-parent households – so for parents who work overnight shifts, seeing their child off to school in the morning isn’t a possibility. Substance abuse and mental health issues also factor into the picture for some families. And about a quarter of the cases involve children from homeless households, McConnell explained, who find themselves “constantly moving away from the school district where the bus would have picked the child up.” Parents don’t know that there are resources available to connect homeless students with transportation and access to education.

It’s that lack of knowledge – and lack of communication – that can often fuel recurring absenteeism. Parents become “so overwhelmed by everything that they don’t communicate,” said McConnell. Meanwhile, the students tend to be unhappy at school, and it “becomes a place where they don’t succeed.”

3L Becky Hutchinson is a mother of two and a clinic participant who came to law school with an eye toward child advocacy. “The clinic was the logical place to learn about juvenile justice,” said Hutchinson – who happened to have personal experience with these very circumstances.

Following a family move from Colorado to Iowa, “My daughter missed a week of school, and I got a very upsetting letter from the principal threatening action because she had missed so much time,” said Hutchinson. Despite being involved in her daughter’s education, “I get this letter that makes me feel like the worst parent in the world.” For Hutchinson, that letter didn’t speak to the spirit of the law. “It was meant to catch people that are struggling, not just with single parenthood but with children that have special needs and likely parents that have their own trauma. It’s not meant to make people feel bad. It’s meant to catch children that need help before they’re so far behind in school that it’s just impossible to catch up.”

Hutchinson, who worked with families on three separate court hearings last semester, sees the P+A=SS Docket as a more effective way to capture that spirit. “Our hope is to break down a lot of these barriers and actually have these families feel like somebody is listening to them and advocating for them,” said Hutchinson. By incorporating parents in the conversation and connecting them with local resources, “it’s definitely setting up this win-win situation.”

And the Richmond Law students see a benefit, too, McConnell pointed out: “They get extensive experience with counseling, interviewing, and advocating for clients who otherwise would have no one to stand up for them.”

Pictured above: Professor Julie McConnell and students from the Children’s Defense Clinic worked with parents at the February 6 P+A=SS Docket at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. Left to right: Mary Margaret Hawkins, L’21; Andrew Abraham, L’20; Dontae Buck, L’20; Professor Julie McConnell; Kennedy Nyhoff, L’20; Jordan Dalton, L’20;  Samantha Mier, L’21; Nicole Gibson, L’20.