In his 17 years on the bench, Howard Superior II Judge Doug Tate hadn’t, until recently, dealt with criminal cases involving chronic student truancy. But then, recently, cases began coming through the local court system.
There still aren’t many, but those Tate encountered appeared to be extreme, with some local students missing as many as 60 days of school due to unexcused absences. By then, said the judge and Howard Circuit Court Juvenile Referee Erik May, a school year has been lost for that student. Thus began an initiative between the courts, local service providers, and area school corporations to deal with issues of truancy, both those involving students and their families, before missed school days reach a point where educational years are unsalvageable.
The idea of addressing truancy issues began recently with collaboration among Tate, May, service providers such as Four County Counseling and the Department of Child Services, and each of Howard County’s five school corporations. Part of the problem, according to those involved with tackling the issue, was a lack of uniformity between school corporations’ timelines for intervening when truancy arose. This factor was exacerbated by students now being able to attend school districts they don’t live in, and when they transferred, absences weren’t always tracked. Another issue was a lack of clear-cut communication lines and procedures between the schools and the judicial systems, according to Tate and May.
“From our point of view, the motivation was to try to get earlier referrals from the schools,” said May. “Then that evolved into let’s have a uniform policy so we’re all speaking the same language. Because each school did it differently … But at the same time there was a need to have some uniformity there. And in light of the fact kids can go to whatever school they want to now, regardless of what school district they live in, there were a lot of students going from one school or another. So the rules affecting attendance ought to be the same.”
So, each entity started meeting, hammering out ideas on how to normalize the schools’ approaches to dealing with truancy, in terms of notifying parents, students, and the court systems alike. What followed was a uniform policy that schools are now in the process of adopting.
Last week Eastern Howard School Corporation was the first to adopt the policy, followed soon thereafter by Taylor Community School Corporation. The area’s remaining school districts, which all have been involved in the crafting of the policy, are expected to vote on the implementation of the policy in the near future.
The new policy entails a three-tiered notification system for truancy. At five unexcused absences a student’s family is notified in writing, and a referral is entered into a system that begins creating a profile on truant students, most importantly tracking the number of days they’re missing. That system, dubbed Quest Case Management System, can be tapped by DCS as well as the Howard County Juvenile Probation Department.
Then at 10 unexcused absences the family is notified again, the Quest System is further updated, and a probable cause affidavit is sent to both juvenile probation and DCS.
At 15 unexcused absences, notification is once again sent to the families, another referral is sent to juvenile probation and DCS, and at that point the agencies forward the case to the Howard County Prosecutor’s Office for a determination as to whether to prosecute the child in juvenile court or to pursue criminal charges against the child’s parents or guardians.
The underlying issue
But, those involved in the process are quick to point out that even though truancy can amount to misdemeanor charges for guardians and students, depending on their age, that isn’t the end goal.
“The goal of this group is not to punish parents and students for not going to school; the goal is to address the underlying issues and provide all the resources we can to see that students do attend school,” said Tate. “There will be some cases that come over that will have to be addressed in the criminal justice system, but we at least want to give the parents and students every opportunity before it gets to that point.”
Rather, once students and their families enter the legal system, services can come to bear. This is important, noted those involved, because truancy often doesn’t occur in a vacuum. It’s normally the symptom of some other issue at home, and those can be wide-ranging as cases can involve elementary-aged students, who can’t be responsible for getting themselves to school, and older students who willfully choose not to attend a school.
“It is likely when you have chronic truancy there are underlying factors that contribute to it, whether they be substance abuse problems, physical abuse problems, or mental health issues,” said May. “There are a whole litany of issues that could be leading to the truancy that, if they’re addressed, will hopefully address the truancy issue.”
As a whole, the program seeks to deal with truancy issues earlier through services provided by probation, DCS, and Four County Counselling. Once students and families begin going through the judicial process, they can be directed to these service providers, and, charges can be avoided.
The scope of the issue
An unknown factor in these policy changes is the scope of the truancy issue on a county-wide scale.
For Eastern School Corporation, the average attendance rate was 96 percent, according to Eastern High School Principal Lindsey Brown.
And yet, while the policy Eastern adopted doesn’t differ greatly from the policy the corporation already had, Superintendent Keith Richie acknowledged that the strength of adopting it lies in the ability to help individual cases at the school.
“I would say for a school like Eastern … we don’t have as big of an issue with attendance as some of the bigger schools, but still at the end of the school year we have some kids who have missed 20 days,” said Richie. “It’s a small handful for us, but there are still some kids this would benefit.”
Brown said the strength of the new initiative would be ensuring students receive a proper education, as lacking that can have long-term, detrimental effects.
“The data is pretty clear. When a student misses 10 percent or more of the school year, there is a significant amount of learning lost,” said Brown. “Our goal is for our students to have the most potential for learning in a school year. Keeping them here, we really want kids to have a school year where there is a continuation of learning, there’s no gap in learning, and that accumulating over time will give them the best chance for whatever post-secondary education or career they’re planning on going into.”