Fellow Kids! Get In the Creepy Truancy Van!
May 17, 2016 (Mimesis Law) – One morning, the school bus didn’t come for Carrie and Colleen Miller.
It was a pretty unremarkable screwup. That day, May 4th, the Millers’ route was being handled by a substitute driver and for some reason (maybe he wasn’t told, or forgot, or was too high to care,) he failed to come get them. The girls were stranded, 2.5 miles from Grady High School in Atlanta, GA.
So what did they do? In a deeply un-American display of independence, the girls went ahead and solved the problem on their own instead of complaining to an adult. They simply walked the 2.5 miles, doing their best to get to school as quickly as possible under the circumstances. It was, all in all, a display of self-reliance to make Lenore Skenazy proud.
But when two cops spotted the girls – 50 yards away from school and closing fast – they decided
This cannot be. We have to screw with these girls and ruin their day.
A truancy van pulled up, the cops jumped out and the Millers were forced to get in. Our heroes, who were caught on camera declining to listen to the girls’ protestations, drove ‘em the 50 yards and dropped ‘em off. Mission accomplished. The truancy office graciously decided not to classify them as “truants;” “late for school,” it was felt, would do to describe their misconduct. Oh, and nobody ever saw fit to notify the girls’ parents.
What the school didn’t know is that their father Mark works for 11 Alive News, an Atlanta TV network (tagline: “Holding the Powerful Accountable”). As the network was breaking the story, Atlanta Public Schools released a statement, claiming the cops were merely acting to enforce the city’s truancy ordinance. APS described the law as follows:
The Atlanta City Ordinance states that students are supposed to be in school during school hours, unless they have a valid excuse.
Is that really what it says? Let’s take a look at the actual statute, Atlanta Code of Ordinances Sec. 106-229. The relevant parts provide:
a) Any minor age six through 15 years old who loiters, wanders, strolls or plays in or upon the public streets, highways, roads, alleys, parks, playgrounds or other public grounds, public places, public buildings, places of amusement, eating places, vacant lots, unsupervised by an adult having the lawful authority to be at such places, between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. on any school day shall be considered a child in need of supervision.
c) A police officer shall transport any minor charged with being a child in need of Supervision, as defined in subsection (a), to a designated school district facility. A minor transported to the school district facility will be released to the custody of the school officials or to the custody of the minor’s parent or legal guardian.
That’s a little different from what the school district was claiming. It’s true (see that “shall?”) that the cops have to detain and transport kids found in violation of this law. What it doesn’t do is authorize them to scoop random kids off the street if they’re not “in school during school hours.” Only a kid who “loiters, wanders, strolls or plays in or upon” public spaces – unsupervised and during curfew – is eligible for a free ride in the truancy van.
Did the cops have probable cause to conclude that’s what the Millers were doing? It’d help if we knew what “loiters, wanders, strolls or plays in or upon” means, but the statute doesn’t bother to define it. Nor do the courts provide any guidance: no convictions under this law have ever been challenged, as is typical for low-level offenses where appeals are often cost-ineffective.
But all four verbs describe purposeless, time-killing activity: not at all what the girls were doing by hurrying to class before the school’s screw-up left them fully high and dry. Did the cops really see two girls from Grady, 50 yards away from Grady, striding in the direction of Grady, and think “by god, they must be trying to escape from Grady! We’ll shove them in this creepy gray van and restore the peace!”
And according to the Millers (and the cell phone video they recorded), their attempts to clarify the situation fell on deaf ears. It appears the cops’ side of the conversation consisted exclusively of comments like “get in the van!” and “can’t you just get in the van!” Witty, to be sure, but it’s almost like they didn’t want to pay attention.
Ultimately, it won’t matter whether the cops were padding their quota. Even if they didn’t have probable cause to believe the girls were in violation of the truancy ordinance, a more broadly written state law – GA Code § 20-2-698 (2015) – gives them the right to seize a child if he or she is “away from home” and “absent from a public or private school […] without a valid written excuse.” The big difference is that the state law doesn’t require cops to grab the kid.
All in all, the school district’s contention that the cops were just doing their jobs reeks of bullshit disingenuousness. Bad enough that APS didn’t apologize for punishing the girls twice over the school’s incompetence: instead, they decided to double down on the stupid and defend their cops’ unnecessary, wholly unreasonable van escapade. With leadership like this, is it any wonder Atlanta’s public schools are embroiled in scandal?