Son bunks, mum charged

By Sophie Ryan

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A Whangarei mother battling to make her son go to school had no idea she would end up with a criminal record because of his absenteeism.

Now she's urging other parents to do all they can to get their kids to school as authorities are prosecuting parents and caregivers of continual truants.

In a rare occurrence, solo parent Diane Tohu is a convicted criminal for the first time in her life after her 15-year-old son was absent for school for 21 days in a row.

Ms Tohu said she had no idea it would come to this, and only wanted her son to be happy, but earlier this month she was convicted and discharged on a charge of failing to ensure a child's attendance at school. It is the first such prosecution in Northland for more than three years, but more cases are before the courts.

"I was thinking, what am I supposed to do? I can't hit him to make him go to school. It would break my heart to send my son to a home. Either way it's against the law," she said.

Her son, Joshua, was convinced he hated school, that it was boring and he would rather be in a fulltime job.

"Every day I told him, 'Boy, without your education you won't get anywhere'." But nothing she said or did could keep him in school, she said.

"I think maybe because I didn't do school and I'm okay he thinks that he doesn't have to," Ms Tohu, who left school at 15 to care for her younger siblings, said.

She often wished she had stayed at school, and is now in a fulltime barista course, which she hopes is a good example to her son.

Ms Tohu said all parents and caregivers needed to be aware that it was they who would face the punishment for truancy, not the children.

"Keep hammering on at them so you don't end up in the same position I am in," she said.

She said Joshua was too young to realise the full extent of what he had put his mother through.

John Gough is the truancy officer at Whangarei Boys' High School and he is facing an uphill battle ensuring all boys are attending school. It is his job to follow up all unexplained absences with parents, and seek interventions with community services when necessary.

He said this was the first conviction of a parent for failing to ensure a child attended school that he had seen in Whangarei.

"My intention is not to get the parents fined. My intention is to get the kids back in school, and a $300 fine (the maximum for the charge) is not going to help anyone," he said.

Mr Gough said four more cases in Whangarei were destined for the courts over the next couple of months and he was not sure whether they would end in convictions.

Ms Tohu and Mr Gough expressed hope that the future would be easier for Joshua. He was going through alternative education with People Potential.

Most recent figures from the Ministry of Education say nationally 29,000 students are truant from school on any given day, which translates to an overall rate of 4 per cent.

Rates for Northland dwarf that, with the Far North, Whangarei and Kaipara scoring 7, 5.2 and 5 per cent respectively.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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