Truancy intervention: First step to resolving a lifetime of problems

Truancy intervention
First step to resolving a lifetime of problems
by Jennifer LB Leese

For most students, skipping school used to be a one-time whim. More often than not, their capers were short-lived because shopkeepers, neighbors, and family friends were quick to report them to parents or school authorities.
Today, truancy has become one of the major problems facing schools in this country. It negatively influences the future of our youth and costs taxpayers thousands of dollars. Let's face it--truancy is costly. It costs students an education. It costs school districts hundreds of thousands of dollars each year in lost Federal and State funds. It costs businesses.
Frustrated by this social and economic burden, communities across the Nation are fighting back. Washington County, Maryland is one of them. Because truancy often indicates bigger problems in a child's life, communities like ours are designing truancy reduction programs that involve schools, law enforcement, families, businesses, judicial and social service agencies, and community and youth service organizations.
During a conference on Monday, August 7, officials announced that the Washington County Truancy Intervention Program, which began earlier this year by officials within the school system, the Department of Juvenile Services, and the Washington County State's Attorney's Office, was a success. Eight of the 10 targeted cases were resolved prior to court action, they reported.
"We are very pleased with these results," said Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, Washington County Board of Education superintendent. "We have a good working relationship with these agencies and by jointly addressing each individual child's situation, we have been able to affect needed change on behalf of students to improve their education, social, and emotional well-being."
Ten students between ages 12 and 15 were recognized as being absent from school most often. Support, observation, and court action was provided to urge students to go to school.
Those ten students were observed for a six-week period. Four of them had zero absences, said Carol Costello, coordinator of alternative programs and student services. She said officials discovered other issues (which could have been juvenile crime or social services needs) with the four absentees that required additional services. Petitions were filed against two of the students who continued to skip school. Costello said, a court order was issued to place one of the students in a shelter for a short time. Case is pending through the Washington County District Court for the other student.
Costello went on to say that under the new truancy intervention program, jail time is possible for parents, and students and parents could face action from the court system.
Eighty-five to 100 students in the county each year are considered by the state as chronically truant. According to The Maryland State Department of Education, students who miss 20 percent or more of a school semester are considered chronically truant.
"If we have one student who is not attending school, that's too many."
Scott Beal, area supervisor for the Department of Juvenile Services, feels that the county's truancy program is "a proactive approach to curbing problems like juvenile crime or drug use."
Students are often found hanging out in arcades, wandering around town, or relaxing at home. During the conference, Costello sounded hopeful and feels that the success of a new program means that more of these children will be found in the classroom.
Truancy intervention programs are created with the intention of addressing the needs of youth who attend school irregularly.
Costello said that the students targeted by the county's program were absent 50- 60 days during the school year.
Truancy may be the beginning of a lifetime of problems for students who routinely skip school. Because these students fall behind in their school work, many drop out of school. Dropping out is easier than catching up.
Many believe that truancy is a stepping stone to delinquent and criminal activity and that they are at higher risk of being drawn into behavior involving drugs, alcohol, and/or violence.
"Washington County has the best attendance rate in the state among all grade levels," said Dr. Morgan. "I would like to see those numbers improve."
"If the student is out of school, then we cannot educate them. And it's the students who are most truant who need our services the most," she said.
The Washington County Public Schools, the State's Attorney's Office for Washington County, and the Department of Juvenile Services set and met three goals were met: to improve attendance rate to 80% for the identified chronically-truant youth; to provide a legal procedure with identifiable consequences for both the student and the parent(s) in cases of extreme truancy; and to deter other students who are demonstrating truant behavior and promote greater compliance with WCPS attendance policy.
Steve Kessell and Charles Strong for the State's Attorney's Office and Michael Markoe, director of Students Services for WCPS also attended the conference.
Carol Costello stated that another group of 10 students will be observed this school year.