Candidates seeking Victoria JP4 GOP nomination vow to tackle truancy cases

Jessica Priest By Jessica Priest

Feb. 9, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated Feb. 9, 2014 at 8:10 p.m.

Both Republican candidates for justice of the peace, Precinct 4, say they are passionate about improving the lives of children.

Jennifer Zeplin has spent the past five and a half years as a juvenile probation officer, supervising more than 200 children who have caught the attention of law enforcement.

Her opponent for the March 4 Republican primary, John Miller, served as the constable for Precinct 4 for eight years.

He was a bailiff for the late Judge Henry Welfel Jr., serving writ of possessions and writ of garnishments, among others things.

"It should be just a smooth transition (for me) from one section of civil courts to the next," Miller said.

The bulk of Welfel's and now outgoing Justice of the Peace Precinct 4 Ted Seel's case load involves truancy, said Miller.

Children are truant if they do not attend a day of school without permission.

Both Miller and Zeplin have vowed to focus on the truancy problem in the area if elected.

There were 792 truancy cases for the 2012-13 school year, and 138 truancy cases filed through December 2013, said Diane Boyett, VISD spokeswoman.

"I believe that I'll be able to speak with the children of VISD who are having a hard time and not going to school and try to encourage them to stay in class," Miller said.

Miller and his mother moved to California his junior year of high school, but it was important to him that he return to the Lone Star State. He re-enrolled at Victoria High School a year later and stayed with his grandparents or on friends' couches.

Miller and his friend, who is now a Victoria County Sheriff's Office investigator, wanted to go to the police academy after graduation.

Miller worked in construction until 1991, however.

"In 1992, I made my mind up. I said I was going to do it, so I went down to Victoria College and applied and went to the police academy in my early to mid-30s," he said.

These days, he works in construction.

Zeplin took a different path.

She graduated from the University of Houston-Victoria and coached special needs children at VISD from 1998 to 2007 before becoming a juvenile probation officer.

Now, she's considered a senior probation officer at the Victoria Regional Juvenile Justice Center, a mentor for new employees. She spearheads programs that teach kids job skills.

Zeplin said, if elected, she would explore whether Victoria could model its truancy court after Montgomery County's successful efforts.

That would involve the child checking in with her about his or her progress at school. She would also connect them with counselors because truancy often leads to delinquent behavior, she said.

"The decision I make (now as a juvenile probation officer) are not taken lightly," Zeplin said. "It is case by case. It is all made in the best interest of the child and the community in general."

Mike Weaver, president of Weaver & Jacob's Constructors, hired Miller seven years ago from a pool of about 30 applicants.

Miller is in charge of the $30 million, 65-acre Pioneer Natural Resources development north of Victoria on U.S. Highway 77.

He schedules the 80 to 100 workers and contractors out there to make sure plumbers aren't working on top of those installing cabinets for example, Weaver said.

"He's very detail-oriented, solves a lot of problems and deals with a lot of personalities," Weaver said. "He's imminently fair. Every decision he makes on the job usually has 10 mitigating circumstances that go with it. It's up to him to make the correct call ... and he always seems to get it right."

Nancy Wilkinson met Zeplin's father, who was a car salesman, decades ago.

Wilkinson, who owns Wilkinson Chevrolet in Refugio and Wilkinson's Pre-owned Super Center in Victoria, described her friend as "strong."

At the grocery store, Wilkinson has seen Zeplin visit with the kids she's reformed.

"Not everybody is like that," Wilkinson said. "She takes her job home now, and she'll be doing the same (if elected)."

"She's strong-hearted and strong-willed. She wants the best for everyone," Wilkinson said.



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