A Georgia mom shackled and arrested over her 10-year-old son’s school absences says that she and other parents should have the right to keep their kids home without having to shoulder the burden of going to a doctor’s office every time to get a medical excuse.
“When a child is a successful student and they see there’s no abuse or neglect, the parent should be able to write the note,” Julie Giles tells PEOPLE.
Giles, 42, of Sylvania, was arrested – complete with mug shot and ankle shackles – earlier this month after her fourth-grade son, Samuel, had too many unexcused absences. The dramatic step is perfectly legal in Georgia and elsewhere. For example, in Illinois, excessive absences can be considered a form of child neglect and parents could be sentenced to 30 days in jail, according to the National Association of State Boards of Education.
Indeed, Giles wasn’t even the only parent in the 23,000-student Screven County school district to be arrested this year over unexcused absences. Superintendent William Bland said the county sheriff’s office called or visited 67 parents; of those, 12 including Giles were referred for further court action and arrested.
“We don’t do it until we’ve exhausted all other means,” Bland tells PEOPLE. “I do believe attendance is very important for students to learn.”
Giles says that though Samuel is fully vaccinated, he was frequently sick this year, including during an outbreak of stomach virus. She adds that he had 12 unexcused absences, though the figure is one point of contention. Georgia law allows five unexcused absences; Screven County allows an additional five absences if a parent sends a note, Bland says. “A child can miss 10 days before anything happens,” he says.
Giles says in some cases she did take Samuel to physicians and, once, to the ER. She received doctor’s notes for each of those visits. (“I don’t know if Samuel failed to give them to the school, or they lost them,” she says.) Other times, however, she didn’t want to pay the insurance co-pay if she could handle caring for her son herself.
“I’m having a real issue with them telling me that an excuse from his mom isn’t enough,” Giles tells PEOPLE. “It’s like they’re saying you’re not competent to judge if your own flesh and blood is too sick to go to school.”
In fact, as long as the child is getting educated and the student is not being harmed, school districts “should trust the parents, unless you have reason to believe otherwise,” David DeLugas of the National Association of Parents, a parents’ rights group which has taken on her case, tells PEOPLE.
Because of the publicity over the arrest, Giles says she stopped getting calls to substitute teach in the district, and now she and her husband are talking about alternative options for next year, including moving, sending Samuel to a private school or homeschooling.
Meanwhile, Samuel, who is on the honor roll and was named “Student of the Month” at Screven County Elementary School in May, says that since school ended last week, he’s having a low-key summer. “I’m playing outside with my friends,” he tells PEOPLE.
Giles faces up to seven months in jail and fines, DeLugas says. But perhaps surprisingly, she’s getting support from what might seem like an unlikely source: the school superintendent himself. He tells PEOPLE that Samuel is “a great student” and adds that Giles’ work as a sub “has been an asset to the district.”
Once she gathers all her documentation, Bland says, “I think she’s got an excellent case here to present to the judge to get it thrown out.”
Giles is due in court on July 14.
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