PHOENIX — The excuses for missing dozens of days of school this year ranged from insomnia to asthma to not liking the "drama" in high-school hallways.
But Judge Dan Dodge wasn't having any of it at a new special hearing he holds for truants and their parents once a month.
"Chronic truancy is a criminal offense. Do you want to start out your life with a criminal record?" Dodge said as he stared down from the bench at Gilbert's Highland Justice Court at a sleepy-eyed 15-year-old Dobson High School student.
The freshman said he has missed dozens of days of school this year because he usually struggles to fall asleep until 3 a.m. He then has trouble getting up for his 8 a.m. class. And Mom, typically asleep herself at the hour school starts, is no help, the student said.
"I don't really care about school," he had said before walking into the courtroom. "I would rather stay up late and play music."
Dodge was unsympathetic, saying the problem could easy be solved with fewer late-night jam sessions and a louder morning alarm clock. Or maybe Mom should just pour a glass of water on his head every morning at 6 a.m., the judge said.
Dodge told the young insomniac to have no more unexcused absences this year or he could lose his right to apply for an Arizona driver's license until he turns 18.
On a recent afternoon, Dodge looked around a courtroom full of accused truants, their parents and their guardians and told everyone to shape up or face prosecution by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
Parents in the room eyed each other with chagrin as Dodge told them that they, along with their teens, could face Class 3 misdemeanor charges -- meaning fines and possible jail sentences -- if they did not get their kids to school on time or make arrangements for them to study at home because of chronic illnesses.
"And if you want to drop out and ruin your life at age 16, that is your prerogative. But before that, it is not your privilege," Dodge told the students, who are not identified because The Arizona Republic typically does not print the names of juveniles accused of crimes.
Dodge ordered the kids and parents to return to his courtroom in March with report cards and attendance records. If things have improved by then, charges will be dropped.
At least one student in the courtroom was already on her way to a new life. Wearing a charter-school uniform, she told Dodge that she hated the "drama" at her former district high school and had been in class every day since she transferred.
Truancy court is a no-nonsense year-old partnership between the Mesa Public Schools Safety and Security Department and East Valley justice of the peace courts, including Dodge's.
Mesa, the largest school district in the state, has a long history of being the toughest on truants.
Most schools traditionally let attendance clerks and counselors deal with kids who play hooky occasionally and report chronic truants to local police. Peoria Unified School District in the West Valley has an innovative on-campus program called "Sweeps" that requires kids who are late or loitering around campus to spend at least one class period away from other students explaining to a teacher why they were AWOL.
In contrast, Mesa employs nine uniformed, body-armor-wearing, pepper-spray-carrying security officers who spend at least half of their time tracking truants and their parents. The officers are not sworn law-enforcement officials but have been trained to restrain young offenders until police arrive.
The annual cost in salaries is about $140,000 for the anti-truancy program, said Mesa schools security director Allen Moore, who believes the expense is more than worth it.
While the district wants as many kids in school as possible -- it gets nearly $5,000 a year in funding for each child enrolled and has lost 9,000 students in the past decade -- it's even more important to turn around truant kids before they get involved in crime, Moore said.
After performing normal school-security duties, the nine officers patrol areas that truants like to frequent -- shopping malls, electronics stores and restaurants with deals on breakfast -- in search of kids who should be in a classroom.
While one ditch day here or there probably does not mean the start of a criminal career, juvenile-crime experts say habitual truancy often is the first step toward involvement with drugs, vandalism, burglaries and gangs.
"We get calls from the parks, from the malls ... sometimes the kids have already been involved in burglaries," said Tim Pinsonneault, security supervisor for Mesa Public Schools.
"Habitual truants like to hang out with each other," Mesa security officer Nathan Wax said. "Kids all have cellphones. They text each other and meet up at houses where parents aren't home."
In most cases, truancy problems are solved with a simple visit with the child and parents from a school security officer.
"We meet with parents and the student, we explain the state law to them. We say our goal is not to cite them," Pinsonneault said. "But if they don't correct the behavior, they are served by a process server and they have to go to court. If they don't show up, a warrant is issued for their arrest."
Moore said his officers have stumbled onto meth labs and dwellings where the conditions were so uninhabitable that they called Mesa police and the state's Child Protective Services.
But, he said, truancy is a middle-class problem, too.
"We have parents who want to take their kids out of school for a cruise," he said. "That is not allowed. And some parents want to start holiday break by going on vacation early. We don't call that vacation. We call it truancy."
Tutoring, counseling and parenting classes are made available to kids and parents who need them. But Moore said in many cases families just need to be made aware of the law. He said in the last calendar year, his officers have tracked down and given warnings to 1,184 truant junior-high and high-school students and 1,972 parents of truant elementary-schoolers. All but 606 middle- and high-school students and 234 elementary-school students returned to school with no additional action, he said. Those who did not heed the security officers' warnings were summoned to truancy hearings in a court like Dodge's.
Pinsonneault said that before last year, Mesa schools, like most other districts in the county, referred its habitual truants to the county's Juvenile Probation Department. The problem, he said, was that some parents failed to take the juvenile citations seriously.
"Bringing everyone to a justice court gives the process more teeth," he said.
Of the 79 chronic truants who appeared in Dodge's court last spring, only 12 still have charges pending, Moore said. The rest "have corrected their behavior and are attending school successfully," he said.
"It amazed me what a difference a little bit of the fear of the law would make," Dodge said.
Information from: The Arizona Republic, http://www.azcentral.com