KING 5: A new approach to truancy

I am a reformed truant.

There. I admit it. When I was a kid I hated to go to school. I learned as early as my  kindergarten year at North City Elementary how to get out of going to class. The child of divorced parents, I was a latch-key kid who was responsible even at the age of 5 to get to school on my own and decided I’d rather stay home and watch J.P. Patches. My brush with truancy ended when my mother attended a parent/teacher conference and found out I had missed more than 45 days of instruction. She and the principal, Mr. Honeycutt, took a get tough approach and required me to make an appearance at his office every day to prove I was in school. I was forever changed.

Clearly that was a different era. My mother admits that leaving a 5-year old home alone – even in the 1960s – wasn’t a good idea. Then, though, there was no state law against it – or against truancy. Now, Washington State law says that a student is truant if they miss more than seven days of schooling in any one month or ten days in a semester. Kids and their parents face contempt of court charges if they don’t get to class.  Parents can be also be fined up to $25 for each day their child misses and truants can be placed in detention for up to two weeks.

But that’s the least of their worries. When students start missing class on a regular basis it is, understandably, hard for them to catch up on their classwork. Once behind, those students are more likely to drop out of school entirely. Statistics show that three-quarters of all state prison inmates are high school dropouts. A Seattle School District study identifies more than 14-percent of its high school students as truant, this in a school district that has an on-time graduation rate of only 63-percent.

In an effort to curb those statistics, the King County Prosecutor’s office is partnering with the Center for Children and Youth Justice to find new ways to convince kids to stay in school. Instead of requiring kids and parents to go to court, they’ll get a letter indicating that they need to attend a truancy workshop.  “For many of these kids, and their parents, the truancy letter they get from my office will be a wake-up call,” said Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg in his weekly Prosecutor’s Post. “I don’t want to haul them into Juvenile Court, but I do want to get their attention.”

Hmm. A letter. I’m not sure that would get my attention over someone knocking on the door saying I needed to take time off work to go before a judge and explain why my child wasn’t attending school.  The fact is, truancy cases make up thirty percent of all cases filed in Juvenile Court. Truancy cases are creating a backlog in the Juvenile Court system. A report compiled by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy released just last month indicates it cost the state’s courts more than $15-million dollars last year to prosecute truancy cases.

Under Satterberg’s new plan the cases would be diverted from court and into community and school-based truancy workshops aimed at identifying the underlying issues that are keeping the child out of school.  Research shows the biggest reasons behind truancy can be traced to the home, among them a lack of supervision, failure to encourage academic achievement and physical or emotional abuse. If these are indeed the causes, wouldn’t we want to send a stronger signal of the importance of education to both parents and children than a letter?

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