Trenton Children Held Hostage: Whither the Schools?

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By now everyone’s heard about the horrific story of the Trenton mother and her five children held hostage by the mother’s boyfriend for two weeks.  After a 37-hour stand-off this past weekend, the SWAT team burst into the home and killed Gerald Murphy, who had imprisoned 3 of the children in a 10’ by 11’ room that also held their mother’s decomposing body. Two were teenage girls, who had been physically and sexually assaulted. The other was a 4-year-old boy.  Another sibling, 13-year old Quavon, was found dead of gunshot wounds. The oldest sibling, a 19-year-old boy diagnosed with autism, had been shuttered in the basement for the duration and found eating garbage scraps.

Two weeks is a long time for five children to go missing. There’s been no published information on where the children went to school, although all should have been enrolled, the middle three most likely in public school, and the 4-year old in full-day preschool (Trenton is an Abbott district, one of NJ’s 31 poorest, and offers free full-day preschool to 3 and 4-year-olds.) The oldest boy should also have been enrolled in school because children with multiple disabilities typically stay in high school through age 21.

So where were the schools in this? No word, but Trenton Public School has clear attendance policies. Just showing up late three days in a row should have triggered, according to the Board of Education Policy 5240, phone calls, letters, and meetings with parents. Trenton’s attendance policy (5200) refers to New Jersey State Code, N.J.A.C. 6A:16-7.8(a)4.  In part, the code mandates that all NJ public schools respond to student absences in the following manner:

 For up to four cumulative unexcused absences, the school district shall:
(1) Make a reasonable attempt to notify the student’s parents of each unexcused absence prior to the start of the following school day;
(2) Conduct an investigation to determine the cause of each unexcused absence, including contact with the student’s parents;
(3) Develop an action plan in consultation with the student’s parents designed to address patterns of unexcused absences, if any, and to have the child return to school and maintain regular attendance;
(4) Proceed in accordance with the provisions of N.J.S.A. 9:6-1 et seq. and N.J.A.C 6A:16-11, if a potential missing or abused child situation is detected; and
(5) Cooperate with law enforcement and other authorities and agencies, as appropriate;

Maybe the school district did all of this, to no avail, and maybe this all takes longer than two weeks. Could the children have been spared some of the trauma if the public district had been  more proactive? Should districts be more aggressive in responding to unexcused and lengthy absences? Maybe the State DOE needs to insert some teeth into these regulations.

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