Chico Sol, News Report, Leslie Layton
ORLAND, Calif. When Shannon Anderson asked the police who were on the porch of her Orland home why they planned to arrest her, an officer radioed the question to headquarters.
It was a recent March Monday, and Anderson had answered the door in her shorts, t-shirt and socks, hardly expecting to be greeted with handcuffs. She was shocked by the one-word response that came back over the police radio: Truancy. Then, the 37-year-old mother of four was booked into Glenn County Jail in Willows on a $10,000 warrant.
Anderson soon realized she had been arrested in connection with her dispute with the Orland Unified School District over her youngest son's attendance record. Her 8-year-old son Logan suffers from asthma, the cause of most of his 24 absences this school year. Anderson has only been able to persuade the school to excuse 14 of the absences, even though she says that in many cases the district nurse agreed Logan should go home.
The charges that had been filed against her were serious and distressing. There was a felony forgery charge based on the allegation she had altered a doctor's note. There was a charge she had violated the education code by failing to get her child to school. And the charges were also filed against her husband Jamie, who was arrested and jailed the following day after posting bail for his wife.
Another Orland couple, Anthony and Cherrie Hazlett, face the same charges; arrest warrants for both the Andersons and Hazletts were issued Feb. 18, according to court records. All four Orland parents deny altering or forging doctors' notes in an effort to get their children excused from school.
Their harsh treatment has sown fear in this farming town west of Chico on Interstate-5. There are rumors of parents who want to disenroll their children from the public schools and parents who worry they, too, could face charges. The Andersons' attorney, Helen Duree of Orland, said she had spoken with a parent who feared that keeping a sick child home could mean arrest.
"This is a reign of terror over parents and their sick children," Duree said March 24.
Attorneys argue that the felony charge filed against the Andersons and Hazletts doesn't fit the alleged crime — that of doctoring the doctor's notes.
Furthermore, the California education code section 48293 cited by the district attorney's office as "failure to send child to school" clearly calls for fines for the first, second and even third violations. And the Andersons contend the Orland school district made little effort to work with them over the perceived truancy problems.
In a March 25 phone conversation, Glenn County Assistant District Attorney Dwayne Stewart declined to comment on the cases. Asked why he had filed felony charges based on a penal code section designed for evidence altered for legal proceedings, he said, "Come to court to find out."
Some parents believe a truancy crackdown is underway, driven by worry over state funding tied to student attendance. But Orland Unified School District officials deny there's any such crackdown. "My interest is making sure kids are safe and in school," said Superintendent Chris von Kleist.
The Orland school district employs a truancy officer and requires doctors' notes after a student racks up 10 absences, von Kleist said. And this year, it began requiring short-term independent study for students who are removed from school for winter trips of five to 10 days to Mexico or elsewhere, helping students stay up on work and helping the district maintain state funding tied to attendance, school officials said.
Students classified as "Hispanic" or "Latino" are more than 50 percent of enrollment at Orland schools, and about 58 percent at Fairview Elementary where Logan Anderson was attending. Between 15 and 20 percent of town residents are usually below the poverty line.
Orland Unified School District makes four to five referrals to the district attorney a year for truancy, but von Kleist said he doesn't remember parents being jailed or charged with felonies in the past.
The Sacramento Valley Mirror has reported, however, on the case of an Orland parent who was arrested and jailed two years ago. Bud Watson was charged with a misdemeanor, and though the charges were dismissed in court, he spent $12,000 on his case, the Mirror says.
Shannon Anderson said her Kafkaesque tale began the morning of Jan. 11. Two of her sons — Logan and 11-year-old Dustin — were sick. Both were vomiting, and Dustin was sneezing and coughing. Anderson took the boys to see the district nurse, who refused to excuse either boy.
Dustin attended school for the next few days, becoming progressively sicker, until he was diagnosed with pneumonia, Anderson said.
Because Logan continued vomiting after they left the nurse's office, she took him to the office of Orland doctor James Corona. She was given a note on which someone in the office wrote, "sick with flu," Anderson said. She provided a copy of the note during a recent interview at her kitchen table. She is accused of altering the date and diagnosis with white-out; she denies any such tampering.
The doctor, Corona, has himself become the center of dispute. He has denied seeing Logan that morning and refused to give the Andersons or even their attorney Logan's medical records. Duree says Corona told her he was acting under instructions from the district attorney's office. "The parents can't get their own child's medical records," Duree exclaimed. In an earlier interview, she wondered if he had been "intimidated by a government office."
An uneasy Corona returned a call to this reporter and said he hadn't seen Logan in 2010. "I have nothing to do with this situation," he said. "I've done nothing wrong."
Public defender David Nelson, who's representing the Hazletts, questions the logic of requiring doctors' notes. Many of Orland's families probably find it difficult to get and pay for doctor visits, he pointed out. "Poor families may or may not have health insurance," Nelson said. "And good luck getting an appointment on the day your child's sick.
"Since when have we taken child-rearing away from the parents and given it to the schools?" Nelson said.
Cherrie Hazlett, who has pleaded innocent, said in a brief telephone interview that she has legitimate doctors' notes for her children's absences, though she may not have turned all of them in swiftly because she herself was sick. Cherrie Hazlett is a homemaker and her husband a printer for a Marysville newspaper; they have three children.
The felony charges are based on Penal Code 132 making it a felony to offer altered or forged evidence in court. A conviction can result in a prison sentence; they're the kind of charges that "ruin lives," said public defender Nelson.
As a child with asthma, Logan Anderson might be covered by the American Disabilities Act, attorney Duree said. The school district should have worked with the Andersons on a "504" she added, producing a study plan for a child with a disability. "This is a nice family struggling with a sick child. Having them arrested in front of their kids is way beyond the pale."
In November, Shannon Anderson signed an Attendance Improvement Program contract used by the district. She said she was told then she'd be prosecuted if she didn't sign the contract. The contract states her child then was considered "truant" and would be considered a "habitual truant" with the next unexcused absence. The contract says a violation can result in a "summons to a district attendance intervention hearing from which additional legal consequences may follow."
Duree says the Andersons were never summoned to a hearing, but one was held. "It was like a secret hearing," Duree said.
Because of the attention that the cases have drawn, Superintendent von Kleist said that from now on, he or his assistant superintendent will personally review cases before they're referred to the district attorney.
Shannon Anderson said that when she signed the AIP contract, she hoped she'd be able to get any needed excuses from the district nurse and save on the $20 copays for doctor visits. She and her husband said they've filed for bankruptcy twice because of medical bills. Shannon Anderson is a homemaker and her husband a supervising diesel mechanic who works in Chico. Their four boys have college ambitions, but the parents have recently had to pour their rent money into bail bonds.
The Andersons and Hazletts, meanwhile, have each pulled two children out of the public schools and placed them on a privately-run home school program. Shannon Anderson wonders whether the district attorney's office assumed the parents would stay quiet because they lack resources or sophistication. "I think they wanted to make an example of us. They thought we wouldn't fight back," Anderson said. "They thought they had two sets of parents who were goons."