March 19, 2019
When Greg Scott first took to the Montgomery County magisterial district bench in 2015, he became the youngest sitting judge in the commonwealth.
When he took over truancy court duties for the 2018-19 school year, the Norristown native found himself in the unique position of being young enough to try to establish a level of rapport with teens – and their parents – appearing before him.
It was less a job requirement and more of a calling for the 31-year-old Scott who, upon being sworn in, said, "When I get interested in something, I dig in deep. If you look at my career choices, you'll see it has all been connected to helping people."
That sentiment helps explain why he wanted to take a hands-on approach – much like his predecessors' efforts went beyond courtroom interactions – that included checking in on truant teens at school.
He said he wanted to make sure they’re not only attending classes, but doing the work necessary to get back on track with their education.
“It’s not enough to just show up. You got to do the work.” That's his go-to message at truancy hearings as he makes it clear to teens that their behavior could land their parents in legal trouble, including fines and potential deportation. “I’m going to show up at your school to check and you’ll never know when,” he adds.
The approach has drawn positive responses from some school officials, and community members, who have seen the judge's impact on a handful of students who've returned to school with a renewed focus.
Scott’s first visit to Norristown Area High School – which he said was approved by school officials – was scheduled for January 10 at 1:30 p.m., but as he drove from the Dekalb Avenue courthouse to the school in West Norriton Township, a fax was received at his office (at 1:01 p.m.) from Peter C. Amuso, an attorney with the Trevose law firm that serves as the district’s solicitor.
Soon after his arrival, Scott learned he wasn’t welcome at the school that day.
“Any such visit requires the prior permission of the Superintendent or the building principal,” read the fax from the solicitor. “Since you do not have such prior permission … the District cannot accommodate the visit you had planned for today.”
Scott was initially baffled by his greeting at the school, described by a witness as: "Look, we have to reschedule, the superintendent doesn't want you coming in." That confusion soon turned to anger.
Two months later, it's developed into an ugly disagreement between the judge and school district officials, who are also facing questions about an auditor general's report that, among other things, found the district wrongfully received $56,087 due to inaccurately reported transportation costs.
Suffice it to say, these are troubling times in the Norristown Area School District.
In 2016, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed a “truancy overhaul package” that raised fines for parents or truants over the age of 15 from $300 to $750, with potential jail time for parents of habitually truant students.
At the time, Christopher Dormer – then the district’s assistant superintendent and now superintendent – said: “We're vigilant with school attendance-improvement plans and have a home-and-school team to work with families to remove those barriers for kids who are habitually truant.”
Scott became part of that vigilant approach. Students could be sent to see him after three unexcused absences. Many did go before the judge.
While this was his first year in charge of truancy court, he’d seen it in action as a clerk in that same magisterial courthouse. In that role before him was the late Judge Ester J. Casillo and current Judge Margaret Hunsicker.
Scott's first Truancy Initiative hearings came in October. The second batch were in December. (One recent Tuesday afternoon, the courthouse lobby was packed with parents and children waiting to appear before him.)
Then came January, and the paper trail indicating his request to visit Norristown Area High School – Scott said he’d seen Casillo visit the school as an intern in her office – had cleared the proper channels.
The date – according to a correspondence stating NAHS Principal Ed Roth “said the doors are always open for (Scott) to visit” – was January 10, and the judge planned to meet with students scheduled to appear before him in court four days later.
That visit, of course, didn't happen.
"We will ensure that no child ... gets pulled out of class to meet with any judge without notice, legal representation, and a parent or guardian." – Shae Ashe, Norristown school board president
Spurned at the high school that Thursday afternoon, he went to the superintendent’s office – located within walking distance of the school. Dormer wasn’t available, so he headed back to court, saw the fax and responded with a letter to the solicitor, superintendent and principal.
“I am perplexed and disturbed by your actions to interfere with my statutory responsibilities,” it read. “The visitor policy does not apply to me according to the prescribed definition. I have a myriad of students in the District under my ‘supervision, guidance or control.’
“There is established precedent with these visits from colleagues in this district, and across the Commonwealth. Particularly, Judge Ester Casillo, when handling the District truancy docket, made visits to school buildings, and Judge Margaret Hunsicker has continued that tradition as well, specifically with a visit to the High School.”
A day later, the solicitor responded stating that Scott would need permission solely from the district superintendent for any visit, and that judicial rules “prohibit you from conducting an independent investigation into the facts of a matter before you.” (Missing from that letter: any statement regarding permission from a principal being sufficient for entry.)
Sure, Scott would later be permitted entrance to the school to speak to students at a Martin Luther King Day assembly, but visiting truants was off the table as far as the district was concerned.
When asked for comment about the situation last week, Dormer said “we simply reminded him of the policy for visitors and asked him to follow it.”
“Judge Scott was never entirely clear on why he wanted access to our students,” he stated. “Our school board is fiercely protective of our students and rightly so.
"Mr. Shae Ashe, our board president, put it best when he said, ‘We are committed to protecting the confidentiality of our students, and will ensure that no child in the Norristown Area School District gets pulled out of class to meet with any judge without notice, legal representation, and a parent or guardian.'"
He also questioned Scott's assertion that previous judges in charge of truancy court had visited the high school to meet with students with cases.
“The District works with several local magisterial district judges, and not one of them, either now or in the past, has acted like Judge Scott," he said. "To be clear, none of his predecessors met in our schools with students who had cases before them.”
Stephen J. Jacobson, a Doylestown attorney who's worked on education-related cases for the past 20 years, noted there is "generally no absolute right for anybody to enter a school," and that districts have wide latitude to enact policies governing visitation.
While he's never heard of a judge personally visiting a school, it's common practice for them to call over to the office to check in on students' progress, he said.
"The law is fuzzy in this area. There are very few absolutes," he said. "On one hand, I'd say there's something kind of nice about it, engaging the kids in this manner, but districts may not like it. But the district engaged the judge to begin with (by sending students to truancy court). It was the district engaging the process that brings them to this point. I can see a lot of districts welcoming something like this."
Attempts to reach Hunsicker for comment were unsuccessful last week. Ashe sent his thoughts about the matter to Dormer, who spoke on behalf of the district.
For his part, Scott now finds himself in a tiff with Ashe, a one-time friend who works in the office of newly-elected U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean.
Though the paper trail stemming from the spurned visit offers much insight into the judge's thinking, he was unwilling to expand upon it when contacted this weekend.
"As a matter of practice, I do not have any comment for this story at this time," Scott stated in a Sunday morning email.
As a sitting judge, Scott is hamstrung from saying too much about the situation. Those who know him aren’t fettered, though.
They speak about the comments made by an alternative school principal about the impact Scott has had on students in his short time in charge of truancy court.
They talk about students who have returned to school with a renewed focus on academic responsibilities.
They worry about stories of students – inexplicably labeled as kids who “can’t be taught” – being confined to an “emotional support room,” and of Individualized Education Plans not being up to snuff.
They see the controversy of the judge as emblematic of a school district in turmoil.
They start with an auditor general’s report released in February, which had two major findings: a decrease of more than $9 million, or 86 percent, in the district’s general fund balance as the district ran operating deficits between fiscal years 2013-14 and 2016-17, and transportation reporting errors that resulted in a "net overpayment of $56,087.”
“It’s just so frustrating when you hear nonsense like this." – Jim Daley, former mentor to Scott
“This net overpayment was due to the District improperly reporting the number of nonpublic students transported during the 2014-15 through 2016-17 school years as well as improperly reporting transportation cost data for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years,” the performance audit states.
Dormer told PhillyVoice that steps are already being taken to remedy these shortcomings, but that “it is extremely important to note that our fund balance was increased during the 2017-18 school year.”
“We will be adopting district policy on fund balance in the coming months with a plan to achieve and maintain adequate levels in future years,” he said. “The District is working to develop short-term and long-term solutions to address our weaknesses in the area of public transportation reporting .… We will deliberately address our annual reporting weaknesses as part of our (overall transportation-department) restructuring plan.”
The overall climate leaves people like Jim Daley and Rochelle Culbreath wondering what the heck is going on with the Norristown district.
Daley served as a mentor to Scott in his teenage years and continues to work with him to this day as a community support assistant. Culbreath served on Norristown borough council from 2000 to 2006.
Daley said the district’s claims that no judge before has done what Scott sought to do on January 10 “is such a provable lie,” as it was agreed to by the principal and the students’ parents.
He accompanied Scott to the school for the MLK presentation and said the principal of another school “came up to Judge Scott, complimented and thanked him for what he was doing because one of her students was no longer skipping class and was doing the work.”
He laughed when relaying the fact that the teacher who introduced him “put her hands over her eyes to look at the back of the room to see the superintendent of the school district” standing there.
Daley rued both the breakdown of a working relationship between Scott and the school board president, and that the issue had to go public despite initial, private attempts to bridge the gap.
He’s also concerned that a district deemed one of the best in the area when he was a teenager does not retain that same reputation today.
“It just seems like there’s a sense of hard-headedness coming from the district that I don’t remember at any time from when I went to high school – Class of 1973 – until today,” he said. “I don’t know what the situation is, but I have a feeling that when roadblocks started showing up for no particular reason that they’re trying to hide something that’s going on, whether it’s the audit report or other shenanigans that are going on.”
He said it’s even more surprising the lens of Scott’s appearance being so well received.
“It’s just so frustrating when you hear nonsense like this. This is an erosion that’s been going on for some time now, and I’m glad he’s doing things to help engage the students,” Daly said. “It’s just such an unfortunate situation.
“These students are realizing that they’re not just problem students, that Judge Scott cares about their success. He told them that he’s doing this so they don’t have to deal with the (potential negative impacts) of dropping out, that he wants to hear good stories from them. They were so enthused.”
She views him as someone giving back to the community in which he was raised. That he was turned away in the high school lobby left her suspicious, especially in light of the state report and oversight.
“There’s something very wrong happening," she said. "The district is in bad shape financially and academically, and maybe it’s even worse than we thought, which is really sad.”
Like us on Facebook: PhillyVoice
Add Brian's RSS feed to your feed reader
Have a news tip? Let us know.