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VOL. 123 | NO. 36 | Thursday, February 21, 2008

Wharton to Seek Law Against Uninvolved Parents

By Bill Dries

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LISTEN UP, PARENTS: Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. told the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday that he would favor legislation making neglect of a child's education a crime. "You talk about neglect, that is the epitome of neglect," he said. -- Photo By Bill Dries

It was an idea that Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton Jr. dropped into his state of the county speech Tuesday to the Memphis Rotary Club.

Wharton decided to go through with his call for a law that would make parental neglect of a child's education a crime after a morning visit with a group of about 40 juvenile offenders in a detention center. The group included the teenager who shot a classmate earlier this month at Mitchell High School.

"Folks, (these youths are) not living in the same world we're living in," Wharton said. "They don't see things the way we see things. They don't hear things the way we hear. They don't feel the way we feel. They don't cry the way we cry. They don't hurt. It's frightening."

'Pipeline issue'

Minutes earlier city leaders were having a similar discussion about children in less dire circumstances. The discussion was about the level of training some of the teenagers need to take, even for city jobs of a few months' duration in the city's summer jobs program.

City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware argued the funding for the program was better spent on producing the jobs for young people 16 to 21 years old instead of paying teachers for the younger children, ages 14 and 15.

Sara Lewis, director of the city's Office of Youth Services and Community Affairs, termed it a "pipeline issue."

"A broken arm is for six months. Ignorance is forever. The broken arm affects one person, that child. Ignorance affects us all. Shouldn't we give as much attention to those who deliberately sit back with no excuse and let their children wallow in ignorance?"

- A C Wharton Jr.
Shelby County Mayor

"The youngsters have to be taught work-related skills. They do not have them. They do not have those skills," Lewis said. "What we're trying to do is to look at this as a long-term kind of proposition. And you've got to do that until some kind of integration can occur with Memphis City Schools, so that they prepare the youngsters."

Lewis is a former city school system teacher, principal, assistant superintendent and school board member. Last summer the 14- and 15-year-old job applicants weren't a problem. The older children were, she told Ware.

"The disciplinary problems I had last summer were with the 16- to 21-year-olds. Some of them were really awful and some of them were really bizarre."

'Ignorance is forever'

After his remarks at the Rotary Club, Wharton told reporters he is serious about his idea of passing a law to join existing laws about parental neglect. He hadn't talked with any legislators about it before the speech, but said he plans to.

"The idea that someone can receive a note saying, 'Your child is failing' or 'Your child is acting out' and they seem to say, 'To hell with it' - that to me is the epitome of child abuse and neglect," Wharton said."A broken arm is for six months. Ignorance is forever. The broken arm affects one person, that child. Ignorance affects us all. Shouldn't we give as much attention to those who deliberately sit back with no excuse and let their children wallow in ignorance?"

Wharton compared the idea to President Bill Clinton's welfare reform measure of the 1990s that put a time period and a cap on welfare benefits. Like that effort, Wharton said the educational neglect statute should include provisions to provide for parents who have legitimate reasons, such as lack of transportation, for not making meetings or responding to notices. The cost, he argued anticipating criticism, would be less than the cost of providing counselors and other programs in juvenile detention centers for groups like the 40 teenagers he visited Tuesday.

"We have got to take a revolutionary look at how we are dealing with and relating to our children," he said. "We have no way - our law does not recognize a responsibility that's punishable by some sanction if you don't get involved in the educational progress of your child."

Something wrong in society

The city's summer jobs program has already passed its registration period and is now focused on trying to change to meet the demands of employers who are in some cases unwilling to stick with summer job applicants they feel aren't ready for work.

One "major corporation" signed up to provide 20 summer jobs in the summer of 2007, Lewis said. By the time the company had screened job applicants, it took four and two of the four were later rejected.

Thurman Northcross, manager of Youth Services under Lewis, said the problem is not unique to Memphis. It's a problem jobs programs across the country are facing and they are using the same method the Memphis program is using.

"The only way to do that is to work with the kids early on. Get them job ready with meaningful job experience," Northcross said as he talked of not giving employers a reason to turn down children and young adults in the program. "And you can only do that with preparation. We put kids out in that job market right now, my guess is we'll have a backlash."

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