RCI: It’s a normal Wednesday in Jersey City municipal court as the names of 26 truants are read before Judge Cynthia Jackson. Nearly half the cases are no-shows. “Warrant” is repeated over and over. But once a week, a long line of teens — each with over a dozen unexcused absences — are brought before the judge to face fines and explain their reasons for missing class.
There’s the 15-year-old girl whose family is from Honduras who hasn’t been to school yet this year. And the Pakistani teen who says he falls asleep in class because he’s bored and doesn’t hear the teacher call roll.
Fifteen-year-old Joseph, whose mother is from Antigua and is standing beside him, has been skipping class and falling in with the wrong crowd. In June he was jumped at school as part of a gang initiation, which left him with a black eye and bruises. Joseph’s father was deported back to Saint Vincent and his older brother was arrested in connection with a shooting. So Joseph not showing up for class is the least of this family’s problems.
Judge Jackson gives Joseph some paper and sends him to another room to write about where he sees himself in five years. Janice, his mom, sits anxiously at the back of the court. “I have to go to work,” says Janice, a housekeeper. “I’m already late.” Twenty minutes later, Joseph emerges with his essay. It says his dream is to become a boxer.
The judge is exasperated. “You can be anything you want to be but you’re making bad choices,” she says. “At the end of the day, I can’t want more for you than you want for yourself.”
It’s the usual lecture from this judge and hundreds of judges across the country as the children of immigrant families – some documented and others not – are dragged into court for chronic absence. The reasons are as varied as the places they come from. Some are from countries where a teenager doesn’t normally attend school. Some are caught up in gang activity or fear falling prey to it at school. Some families – particularly in cities where police are working with immigration authorities – skip school when Immigration and Customs Enforcement is snooping around, or don’t even enroll their teenagers for fear they will be found out and sent back to where they came from.
But in many cases teenagers are simply teenagers behaving badly.
“These parents come here for a better life, but sometimes the kids don’t give a shit,” said David Ishibashi, executive director of the Youth Success Network, which works with chronically absent children in New Jersey. “These people risk their lives to come here.” But in many cases, he added, the problems immigrant teens face – poverty, trauma, illness and underperforming schools — run much deeper than a bad attitude.