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EDUCATION — Students board a Kokomo School Corp. bus earlier this year.

A new initiative in Howard County designed to stem student truancies is firing on all cylinders, with student referrals from local schools exploding over last year’s totals.

Earlier this year the makings of a new initiative began to take shape. Local judges noticed that student truancy referrals from schools were beginning to enter the court system in increasing numbers. Not only that but also the cases that came down the pipes were extreme, with students missing as many as 60 days of school, creating a situation where, by that point, service providers couldn’t help students salvage a school year.

But, now all of the area’s five school districts are on board with a plan to normalize truancy referral processes, ensuring intervention by the Howard County Department of Child Services (DCS) and Howard County Juvenile Probation Department at a point when students’ academic success still can be achieved.

“Ultimately, my goal is to make sure that children are protected. Part of that protection is making sure they’re educated and going to school. I think it’s really an important piece because kids, we all know, the more they’re educated, the better shot they have in the future,” said Stacy Morgan, director for Howard County DCS.

In first examining the issue, members of the local judicial system identified several key issues at play with student truancy. For one, student referrals to DCS and juvenile probation by local school corporations weren’t being made until the end of the school year. By that point, student absences created an untenable situation for service providers as the school year was already lost by that point.

Second of all, school choice made it difficult for schools to track student absences when students transferred school districts. And along those same lines, not every school district had the same policies when it came to finally making referrals to DCS or juvenile probation.

So, every major player was brought to the table, and earlier this month the judicial system successfully garnered the support of the area’s five school corporations. In doing so, each school adopted the same student truancy policies, with a sliding scale being put in place that dictated what action the school should take as student absences mounted. A system also was put in place to track student absences across each school system, so when students transferred between districts their attendance records followed them.

The effect, it turned out, was nearly instantaneous.

Thus far in the school year, 114 referrals have been made to juvenile probation, with the first coming in late August. Juvenile Probation handles student truancy cases that stem from the student’s behavior. DCS, which deals with issues pertaining to educational neglect by parents, has received 14 cases.

By contrast, only 36 truant referrals were received by both departments through the entirety of the last school year. That, said Burton, was a sign of success.

“That’s why we pushed for this. It was just so frustrating because we would have kids on probation, and we wouldn’t get notice that they had missed 15, 20 days. It was very frustrating. It was hard to be proactive and ensure consequences and monitor it. We weren’t being notified until well past the fact,” said Connie Burton, assistant chief of Howard County Juvenile Probation.

Granted, note local officials, the issue isn’t that truancy is on the rise. Rather, it’s being identified more quickly and more readily.

As the program takes hold, those involved said they hope the initiative over the course of time ultimately will stem student truancy.

“I think we’ll continue to get the truants earlier, but I think we’ll see a decline just because I think parents will be more aware and maybe be a bit more proactive in getting their kids to school,” said Burton.

And it appears the unique collaboration may serve as a template for others. The initiative, according to those involved, is the first of its kind and may pave the way for similar programs in other counties across the state.