'Why? Why? Why are they doing this to me?'

Crackdown on parents of truants splits families,
teaches children a lesson they wouldn't get at school
"I was a street cop, no-nonsense, always had respect for the law."

. . . [I]t's terrible when you have to live every day worrying about what these bastards are gonna do next. . . . I'm not gonna live in tyranny, I'm not gonna live in fear of my local law enforcement. . . . There's no way in the world that they should be allowed to do this in my country."-- Richard Amaral, retired street cop from Rhode Island who moved to Cookeville 10 years ago.

Special to The Putnam Pit

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. -- The father of a 16-year-old girl says the government is using the state's tough truancy law to punish him for complaining about voting irregularities in the election that put ill-fated Byron Looper in office.

Richard Amaral put his daughter Melanie on a plane to Bristol, R.I., Feb. 18. Melanie, in tears, didn't understand why she had to leave Cookeville and her friends behind in such a hurry, especially since her six-month probation for violating probation was going to expire in just three days.

But Amaral insisted. He feared authorities would find any excuse to extend his daughter's expensive legal troubles -- all of which stemmed from her skipping the occasional class at Cookeville High.

The very next morning, Amaral recalled in an interview, he was arrested for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. That night, two Putnam County deputies came to the Amaral house to take Melanie away. Never mind they didn't have a warrant with them.

Luckily for the teenager, she was back with relatives in the Northeast.

"I am a very liberal person, and I can give anyone the benefit of the doubt," said Melanie's mother Donna. "And I have combed my mind for a year, trying to come up with a reason, trying to come over to their side. . . . Why? Why? Why are they doing this to me?"

Truant Officer Jeff Comer might explain that he was merely enforcing Tennessee's strict Compulsory School Attendance Law, which authorities have used in a statewide campaign to crack down on delinquent parents.

In fact, Comer was involved in the case a week earlier in which the Putnam County mother of a seven-year-old girl was jailed for the child's continued excessive absences.

General Sessions Judge John Hudson, who refused to take action when he was told two years ago Circuit Court Clerk Lewis Coomer was stealing money from prisoners in Putnam County Jail, wasted no time jailing the woman for 30 days, with another 30 days to be served weekends because the child was absent despite previous warnings.

So Richard Amaral could see it coming, and he has a theory why.

"I didn't have any trouble until I signed that Looper thing," he said.

When Byron Looper ran for Putnam County tax assessor, the Amarals decided -- for the first time in their lives -- to vote for a Republican. Confused, they asked poll workers how to go about voting for one Republican and the rest Democrats. According to the Amarals, the volunteers informed them that it "wasn't possible," and so they shrugged and voted another straight Democratic ticket.

After Looper won, the Amarals ran into him and apologized for not being able to punch his name. Looper claimed that other would-be supporters had also been illegally misinformed, so lawyer Chantal Eldridge -- a longtime foe of Cookeville's political establishment -- drafted a petition that the Amarals signed.

Later, Melanie and a friend were discovered, time and time again, missing or showing up late to class after spending a long lunch break at Subway. Her parents swear that she is a good kid, observes strict rules and otherwise keeps her nose clean.

"If my kid was constantly picked up for shoplifting, drunkenness, being mean, walking out of a restaurant without paying, I could see getting excited," Richard Amaral said. "These kids are red-blooded American teenagers, and if they get a chance to bonk off a class, they're gonna bonk off a class."

Melanie and her Subway collaborator were charged with truancy by the Juvenile Court -- then handcuffed, ankle-cuffed and thrown into the Juvenile Detention Center for 10 days. Their drivers' licenses were revoked, they were placed on probation, sentenced to community service and ordered to pay fines and court fees of around $150, the Amarals said.

As part of her probation, Melanie  was summoned for a mandatory urine test. According to her parents, the probation started asking her questions about who buys and sells drugs at Cookeville High, and then asked her if she had ever smoked pot. She said she had -- three years ago -- and was immediately charged for possession of marijuana. The urine sample, Richard Amaral said, was never tested.

If she'd ever smoked marijuana, and when she said "yes," he charged her with violating her probation due to possession.

After a legal battle, Melanie was given six months probation, which was to end Feb. 20.

"We decided come August, we couldn't risk her getting a flat tire," Donna Amaral said. "They already threw the book at her for going to Subway. We couldn't risk it."

So before the beginning of the new school year, the Amarals enrolled Melanie in a home-schooling program called the Daniel Academy, with the hopes that she could sweat out her probation and then rejoin Cookeville High. But in December, after four months, they discovered by accident that the Daniel Academy was not an accredited home school.

Melanie was removed, and her parents enrolled her in a new administrator, American Home School, on Jan. 21.  Richard Amaral said he immediately notified Cookeville High.

But a few weeks later, when Melanie's friend -- who was also attending American Home School -- appeared in court about a fine, she was told that American Home School would not be recognized by Cookeville High, either.

"Nobody at the board of education, or the school, or the truant officer, notified me that the . . . school was unacceptable," Donna Amaral complained.

Soon after, The Herald-Citizen published an article about a woman being jailed for her seven-year-old daughter's extensive sick leave from school. At the bottom of the article, Truant Officer Jeff Comer said that he was ready to file charges against "two sets of parents who have not been sending their teenage children to school."

Richard Amaral smelled trouble, and sent his daughter packing the next day. Less than 24 hours later, he was summoned and charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

"I always thought that meant giving the child alcohol," his wife said.

Beside the Looper connection, the couple thinks the law enforcement's motivation may be financial.

"Once they get someone into the court system, it's a continuous cash register," Donna said. "As long as they can keep this kid in the system, they will."

While Melanie finishes high school in Rhode Island, the Amarals plan to stay in Cookeville and fight the charges.

"There's no way they're gonna make me back down, because I don't fear jail," Richard said. "They've done all they could do to hurt me ... to see my little kid with an orange suit on, ankle bracelets, handcuffs, it kinda pisses you off.

"My kid's 16 years old, never been out on a date.

" . . . I tell you, it's a dirty rotten shame what they're trying to do to us. I've never had an argument, never been arrested, don't drink, I'm disabled, got heart problems ... and all of a sudden we ain't from around here, I guess."


Matt Welch is a contributing writer for the Online Journalism Review (http://www.ojr.org).

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