Judgment at Hookyville

The volunteer jurists running a truancy court for St. Louis get an up-close view of wayward kids, don't-care parents and war-zone schools. It's worse than they thought.

"Where you been?"

"Home," says Chantal, tilting her head at her mom as if to say she should know.

Burger stares at the mother, waiting.

After copying Louisville's truancy program, St. Louis made its first change immediately: on-the-spot drug testing.
Jennifer Silverberg
After copying Louisville's truancy program, St. Louis made its first change immediately: on-the-spot drug testing.
Thomas Frawley, administrative judge of the city's Family Court, finds the problems behind truancy overwhelming but says his biggest surprise was this: "They're good kids."
Jennifer Silverberg
Thomas Frawley, administrative judge of the city's Family Court, finds the problems behind truancy overwhelming but says his biggest surprise was this: "They're good kids."

"Lemme think, lemme think," the woman says. "When did we go in court the first time?"

She turns back to her daughter.

"Where you been?"

Burger orders the girl to return in two weeks with perfect attendance.

She reaches with relief for the next student's file -- and gasps at the number of days truant.

Then she remembers to look at the breakdown.

"You were suspended 16 of the 25 days?" she asks the boy who's been slouched in the front row, his big knees jutting at opposite angles, his face a mask of disdain.

His mother sighs.

"They suspended him and put him in this after-school program, and then they kicked him out of that. I get calls at work all the time, saying he's been suspended or sent home," she says.

The first year Burger did this, Roosevelt's easy suspensions drove her crazy. She phoned the ninth-grade principal weekly about this silliness. Freshmen didn't have to show up until 1 p.m. for in-school suspension, and the older kids often got out-of-school suspensions -- which meant they got to sleep in, watch TV and bond with the dropouts on the street. Where was the discipline in that?

Burger doesn't make those calls anymore.

The backtalk's worn her down.

"Take your hands out of your pockets and stand respectfully," she snaps at a tall, lean young woman with 3-inch hoops through her ears. "You missed last week's court date, and you haven't reported to school at all."

"My grandfather died."

"We'll need proof of that. What are you using? Marijuana? Oh, that's right, you and your mother use it together. And you were kicked out of New Beginnings [a court-ordered drug treatment program]? How old are you?"

"I'm 15."

"You are acting and dressing like you're 25, and your attitude is like you're 25."

"I don't have an attitude."

"Well, I am saying you do -- your posture, your tone."

"You want me to stand like this?" She feigns demureness, hands behind her back.

"You don't sass an adult. And you sure as heck don't sass a judge. You keep your mouth shut and be respectful, because you are 15 years old.

"Twenty hours of community service."

As the girl saunters out, the intercom crackles and a pompous voice fills the air.

"Teachers, please check your suspension list and send any students that appear on that list to the office."

The hall rustles with bodies.

Burger still doesn't approve.

But she's beginning to understand.


Burger and the other volunteers take the first tier of truancy cases. And they manage to turn quite a few kids around: the immigrants who didn't understand what was expected; the smart, sad girls with neat rounded penmanship that dents the pages; the boys like Eddie, who skipped most of eighth grade because, as he solemnly puts it:

"I had enemies. They'd walk up and slap me upside the head."

Instead of fighting back and getting suspended anyway, he stayed home and watched Animaniacs. Freshman year at Roosevelt, he racked up 18 days truant out of habit.

Then he found himself in a courtroom.

One mention of detention, and Eddie started going to school. Now he's in one of the smaller career academies, an effort to section off Roosevelt's huge, chaotic student body so teachers and students can pay attention to each other. He wants to be a psychologist; he likes knowing "how you can get people's minds off their stress and what be hurting them."

He looks at kids on the street and thinks: "They don't have much knowledge. What do they think their future's gonna be? They're gonna be like a homeless, ropeless person."

Eddie won't be meeting Frawley down at 920 N. Vandeventer.

Frawley hears the cases that go all the way to Juvenile Court -- the kids unreformed by scolding, threats and essays on "how I would expect students to behave if I were the teacher."

He also gets the handful referred from schools such as Vashon High School, whose principal didn't exactly clamor for an on-site courtroom.

"If you think your kid's smokin' weed, I'll get him tested right here and now," Frawley tells the parents assembled in his courtroom.

Clad in jeans, their eyes uncertain, many of them look like teenagers themselves, still trying to figure out the world.

"If you want your kids to see what it's like living in a 4-by-4 detention cell, we'll keep 'em overnight for you," continues Frawley, his voice louder. "And there ain't no D -- V -- D."

This afternoon, the first case -- strategically called before the new parents leave the room -- is a boy who's had perfect attendance since he was referred. All the parents applaud. Amazingly enough, so do most of the kids.

"Nice job, man," Frawley murmurs. "Congratulations."

Then he calls Lamar: bright, talented, truant almost every day.

"What's the story, Lamar?"

"There is nothing that motivates me."

Startled by the complete sentence, Frawley probes further. It turns out Lamar has his heart set on transferring to the Visual and Performing Arts Academy.

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