The parent trap
Orland couple says the Glenn County District Attorney’s Office went too far by having them arrested in front of their children
When Shannon Anderson asked the police officers standing 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 by Orland police officers. 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 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. Eight-year-old Logan suffers from asthma, the cause of most of his 24 absences this school year. Anderson has been able to persuade the school to excuse only 14 of the absences, even though she says that in some of those cases the district nurse agreed Logan should go home.
The charges 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 same charges were filed against her husband, Jamie, who was arrested and jailed the following day.
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. The Andersons and Anthony Hazlett were released on bail, while Cherrie Hazlett was released on her own recognizance. All four Orland parents deny altering or forging doctors’ notes in an effort to get their children excused from school.
Their harsh treatment has caused a stir in this town. Attorneys argue that the charges don’t fit the alleged crimes. The Andersons contend the Orland school district made little effort to work with them over the perceived truancy problems. And the Glenn County District Attorney’s Office isn’t talking.
Glenn County District Attorney Robert Holzapfel and Assistant District Attorney Dwayne Stewart didn’t return a phone call to this reporter earlier this week.
Some parents believe a truancy crackdown is under way 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 getting kids to 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 for other reasons, helping students stay up on work and helping the district maintain state funding tied to attendance, school officials said.
The 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. Once the truancy officer refers a case to the DA, it’s out of their hands, he said.
The Sacramento Valley Mirror recently reported, however, on the case of an Orland parent who was arrested and jailed two years ago.
Shannon Anderson said her Kafkaesque tale began the morning of Jan. 11. Logan and his 11-year-old brother Dustin were sick; both were vomiting, and Dustin was sneezing and coughing. The district nurse saw both boys; Anderson had signed a contract at the district’s request promising to bring her children to the nurse for excused absences. But the nurse refused to excuse either boy that morning.
The 11-year-old stayed in school until he was diagnosed with pneumonia several days later, Anderson said.
Because her youngest continued vomiting, she took Logan out of school and to the office of Orland internist James Corona. She was given a note on which someone in the office wrote, “sick with flu,” Anderson said, providing a copy 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 a dispute because of statements he has given that conflict with Shannon Anderson’s and over his handling of the boy’s medical records. An uneasy Corona returned a call to this reporter and said he hadn’t seen the Anderson boy any time in 2010. “I have nothing to do with this situation,” he said. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I haven’t given any records to nobody.”
Public defender David Nelson, who’s representing the Hazletts, questions the logic of requiring doctors’ notes. Many of Orland’s low-income 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?”
Cherrie Hazlett, who has pleaded not guilty, 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.
Attorneys also question the felony forgery charges filed against the four parents. The charges are based on Penal Code 132, which alludes to altered documents offered as court evidence, not doctors’ notes. Nelson said such charges are “Martha Stewart stuff,” meaning the kinds of serious charges filed against celebrity Stewart.
Orland attorney Helen Duree, who’s representing the Andersons, agrees. “The DA went way overboard, concocting charges that don’t apply,” Duree said. “This is a nice family. Having them arrested in front of their kids is way beyond the pale.”
Shannon Anderson is an assertive, articulate homemaker, and her husband a supervising diesel mechanic who works in Chico. Their four boys have college ambitions, and the 8-year-old has test scores placing him in the top 7 percent of his class. But the parents have recently had to pour their rent money into bail bonds.
Duree acknowledged that, as a child with asthma, the Anderson boy is protected under the American Disabilities Act. The school district should have worked with the Andersons on a “504” she said, producing a study plan for a child with a disability.
“They could have made an effort to reach out to this family,” Duree said, suggesting that someone in the District Attorney’s Office wrongly assumed they had a report “on a child who had a mom who didn’t care.”
She said she’s been told that charges could be dropped if an agreement was reached between parents and the school district. “They’re trying to use a felony as a big hammer,” she observed.
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. “I think they wanted to make an example of us. They thought we wouldn’t fight back,” Anderson said.