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Judge Toler takes on school absenteeism

When "Divorce Court" Judge Lynn Toler worked in Cleveland Heights Municipal Court, she saw troubled teenagers coming through in waves.

"All of the criminal activities, which were minor, were a function of a life that wasn't working," she recalled, "and a life that wasn't working was a function of the failure to get an education."

On Thursday, Toler will be in Buffalo to speak at a rally sponsored by True Bethel Baptist Church. The rally to increase school attendance will kick off a yearlong mission by the church and its pastor to stem the surge of absenteeism.

"During the last year, we found out just how bad attendance rates were in Buffalo Public schools," said the Rev. Darius G. Pridgen, pastor of True Bethel and a former Buffalo School Board member. "We're not simply having a cheerleading session for attendance, we're providing the tools and opportunities to parents in areas where they may need help."

"Last year we had an immediate need to deal with homicides and violence," said Pridgen, who is now a Common Council member representing the Ellicott District. "We found that many of the people involved in homicides have not completed high school."

Toler joined "Divorce Court" in 2006. In 2007, she became the host of the cable television show "Decision House." In 2008 and 2009, Toler was a bimonthly contributor on "News and Notes," a weekly news program on National Public Radio.

Viewers today are seeing a difference in Toler's television courtroom ("Divorce Court" airs daily at noon and 4 p.m. on WUTV-FOX Channel 29). In 2010, she said, there were more people with children who were not married and living as a family household. "Divorce Court" has now opened its doors to deal with people who are cohabitating but dissolving their union.

When Toler speaks at 1 p.m. Thursday, she will join local educator Eva Doyle at the East Ferry Street church. Motivation will be a huge part of the event, but children who attend will each also receive a backpack chock-full of school supplies donated by area organizations and True Bethel members.

"I don't want to tell them what they should be doing," Toler said. "I want to give them something they can do, like a contract that lists tasks.

"Being a judge has taught me that I am far more empathetic than I thought I was," said Toler. "When I first was on the bench I would get mad at people all the time. After a year I realized that was not going to get me anywhere. You still hold everyone responsible for what they do, but you can't enlighten them unless they know you understand how they feel."

More than half the students in Buffalo public high schools were absent 18 or more days last year, according to a published report. In addition, Buffalo's four-year graduation rate for the Class of 2010 was 47 percent, down from 53 percent for the previous year, the state Education Department recently reported.

Toler shines as an example of the power of education. After graduating from Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania Law School, she began practicing law in Cleveland in 1984. In 1993, at the age of 34, she was elected judge.

While on the bench, Toler, a native of Columbus, Ohio, volunteered actively in her community. She was an advisory board member for Templum House, a battered women's shelter, and was named Humanitarian of the Year by the Cleveland Domestic Violence Center in 2002.

Toler also launched many initiatives for young offenders, including Woman Talk, a program designed to intensively monitor girls ages 14 and 15.

Woman Talk required each girl to sign a contract and promise to daily perform one action involving either self-improvement or community involvement. There were no penalties for nonperformance -- with good reason, according to Toler.

"They had a life of penalties," she said. "They had parents who didn't care. They were always being told they were bad. I had rewards for those who did it the best and most often. I would present the girl with a bouquet of roses in front of everyone. I would plan a nice afternoon tea."

Toler wrote a memoir in 2006, "My Mother's Rules: A Practical Guide to Becoming an Emotional Genius." In it, she described a childhood clouded by mental illness and her brilliant yet alcoholic father. By fourth grade, Toler had suffered her first breakdown. It was her mother, she insisted, who made the difference.

"She was a black woman who knew how to make things work," said Toler. "My mother's rules are about the proper emotion. Your emotions are one of the few arenas in which you can dictate terms. We don't prepare children to deal with their emotional life. [British pop singer] Amy Winehouse died because she wanted to stop feeling bad."

Toler, who lives in Mesa, Ariz., has been married for 23 years to Eric Mumford. They have two sons, ages 16 and 19. Also the mother of four stepsons, Toler recognizes the challenges faced by young people.

"When you were a kid growing up in the '60s, if you made a mistake you might get beat up, you might smoke a little weed," she said. "There were no Columbines. I mean, the alcohol and drugs are rampant in schools. I've got a 16-year-old in school. He and I are tussling like ... you know.

"And that Internet? As a parent, it's killing me," Toler said. "He can only use it now when he's in my husband's and my bedroom, because he was getting up at night using it. He has access to the whole world in his room. He's playing war games with some cat in China, some guy in South Africa. It's OK with me, because he's playing a game."

This information overload has an upside, noted Toler, who said that while teenagers may give you all the right answers at home, when they get outside they don't have the emotional capacity to pull it all together.

"Kids who come from high-volume households lack stability, so they make emotional decisions," said Toler. "Decisions that include having sex with 'Darnell' and not to go to school today. It's all about how do they feel right now. Especially if you're in a funky environment, you need to be in control and not follow. You have to think well of yourself, and not be afraid of being different."

email: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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