IF law-enforcement officials have their way, jail cells in Chicago and other cities may soon accommodate a new breed of ``criminals'' - parents doing time for their children's crimes. After a 15-year-old boy in Chicago missed 80 days of school last year and 17 days this year, frustrated school administrators decided they had had enough. Last week, under provisions of a pilot antitruancy program established in May, a circuit court judge charged the boy's parents with letting him miss too much school - a misdemeanor. He sentenced the couple to a year of court supervision. The judge also scolded the boy and issued a warning: If he plays hooky once more, his parents could be fined up to $500 and jailed for 30 days.
The teenager's parents, the first to be convicted under the program, cried foul. ``I don't think it's fair,'' his mother told an Associated Press reporter. ``We're doing the best we can. We buy him clothes, give him lunch money, and we get him up. He just didn't go.''
Their situation updates the maxim about leading a horse to water. The 1990s version could read: You can lead a child to school but you can't make him attend.
This punish-the-parents approach grows out of educators' well-meaning attempts to improve schools. It also reflects their frustration with chronic truants. Dropout rates run as high as 40 percent in cities such as Boston and Chicago.
But the tactic raises important and troubling questions: Who will care for children if parents must serve time behind bars? Will parents' jail sentences and fines reform a truant student, or merely exacerbate tensions when the family is reunited? Finally, what are the limits of parental responsibility and accountability?
Ninety miles north of Chicago, those same questions are the subject of debate in Milwaukee. Last week a federal district judge reinstated a controversial program called Learnfare that reduces the welfare benefits of parents whose teenagers skip school. In June, families of about 12 percent of students had their welfare payments docked. Parents of at least 13,000 teenagers in Milwaukee County could be subjected to penalties.
Once upon a simpler time, the word parent was synonymous with authority. Then, gradually, the buzz word shifted to permissiveness. Parents abdicated authority to rebellious offspring in the 1960s, and to schools and assorted ``experts'' in the '70s and '80s.
Today the theme song is accountability - the idea that someone must be held accountable for what's right and what's wrong. It is an attitude that extends from the family to the courts and then back again to the family. But should mothers and fathers be held wholly accountable for the actions of their children?
It is one thing to make parents financially responsible when a child's softball shatters a neighbor's window. It is another to call them into court or send them to jail when their children skip school or otherwise misbehave.
In an earlier case in Baltimore, a judge sentenced a mother to 10 days in jail for her daughter's truancy. He also required the girl and her truant brother to visit their mother behind bars, hoping that seeing her in what he described as ``the dirty, funky, stinky Baltimore City jail'' would turn the siblings into model students.
Elsewhere, the mayor of Mechanicville, N.Y., last spring began clamping down on parents whose children violated a 10 p.m. curfew. Instead of penalizing young people, the law fined parents $25 for the first offense. Subsequent curfew violations could land a parent in jail.
The present emphasis on accountability can serve as an incentive, but not if it turns into a blame game. Where in these punitive throw-'em-in-the-clink scenarios is a serious attempt to counsel errant teens, or to make them take responsibility for their own actions? And where is the compassion for fragile families?
Strengthening the authority of parents and the bonds between parents and children will never occur in the visiting room of a ``dirty, funky, stinky'' city jail. Where caring and compassion are required, a legal approach can never be sufficient. The law raises the wrong issues in these cases. The pro-family question to ask is not the lawyer's ``Who's to blame?'' but the social worker's ``Where's the help?''