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Absences prompt neglect charge

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GREENFIELD — Prosecutors are going after a Greenfield-Central parent whose child missed 33 days of school, including the state-required ISTEP test.

Nathan Helsley, 38, of Greenfield, was charged Tuesday with neglect, a Class D felony, and a violation of compulsory school attendance laws, a misdemeanor, after his child’s repeated absences raised concern among school officials. A warrant had not yet been issued for his arrest by Tuesday afternoon.

Greenfield Intermediate School officials first brought the issue to the attention of the prosecutor’s office last year. An investigator called Helsley, who has primary custody of the child, three times between December and March to ask about his child’s repeated absences. Each time, Helsley insisted his child had been at school on the days in question, according to a probable cause affidavit.

Helsley received a certified letter with a final warning in early March, but the child continued to miss or be tardy to school, court documents state.

Between the start of school and March 31, the child was tardy on 14 days and missed 33 days. The child missed ISTEP, which is required by the state in order to determine whether a child may move on to the next grade level. Missing the high-stakes test was what prompted prosecutors to levy a felony charge.

The case against Helsley is born out of a recent initiative by the prosecutor to fight truancy in county schools. Hancock County Prosecutor Michael Griffin launched the educational neglect initiative in 2011 in hopes of developing more consistent attendance policies among schools and establishing procedures for dealing with parents whose children are routinely absent.

Each year since the initiative started, a letter has been included in student handbooks, alerting parents that chronic absenteeism will be taken seriously and outlining potential consequences for those who fail in their responsibility to get their children to school.

Failure to assure a child’s state-mandated education falls under the neglect statute, a Class D felony carrying a penalty range of six months to three years and up to $10,000 in fines.

Griffin said the goal isn’t to charge parents, and ample warnings are given before a criminal case is pursued.

“… Our intention is to encourage parents the best we can to comply with the law,” Griffin said.

The child is the one who suffers when a parent fails to make sure the child receives an education, Griffin added.

“A child who is schooled is better prepared for life and employment and everything that the child will ultimately do,” he said.

Helsley’s is only the second truancy case to rise to the level of criminal charges. In 2012, an Eastern Hancock parent was charged with three misdemeanor counts of violating compulsory school attendance laws. He later pleaded guilty to the charges and received a year of probation.

Greenfield Intermediate School principal Jim Bever said the school takes absenteeism seriously,

“Research study after research study ... proves the number one factor in school success is attendance,” Bever said. “When we have a student who has chronic problems with absences, we can’t do what we do to help those students out.”

Bever said state-mandated teaching requirements have grown increasingly rigorous, making it critical that students attend.

“Our curriculum is now so packed that you miss a day, you miss a lot,” he said. “You miss 10, 20, 30 days, you miss a crucial part of your education.”

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