The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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October 18, 2013

Raleigh County’s new truancy policy receives mixed reviews

BECKLEY — Raleigh County Circuit Judge John Hutchison opened the first day of a new county truancy policy Thursday with 15 students and their parents appearing before him on truancy charges.

In the initial hearings, Hutchison explained new county truancy guidelines to parents and set bond for them.

The policy, aimed at serving truancy letters and getting truant students and their parents in front of a judge more quickly, received mixed reactions among local residents Thursday.

Some, like Raleigh teacher Natalie Coots, praised the policy.

“I hope the courts follow through,” said Coots in a Facebook comment. “If they aren’t in the classroom, we can’t teach them.”

Raleigh BOE member Richard Jarrell wrote, “If students go to school, there will be no need to worry, but ... we had over 1,300 students miss over 20 days last year.

“We do have a problem, and hopefully this will go a long way towards a solution.”

Some parents were concerned that the penalties and the many agencies involved in enacting the new policy — the school system, law enforcement, the judicial system and Department of Health and Human Resources — will unfairly expand the presence of government in residents’ lives.

Students must not have more than five unexcused absences per semester and must present their excuses to school officials within 48 hours of the absence, according to the policy guidelines.

Cecil Massey, 42, of Beckley, said that two of his four children attend school in Raleigh County.

“I would say, that’s too much government intrusion,” said Massey. “We are the parents. Not the government, not the school, not the community.

“The community is not my children’s parents.”

Massey said he understands the goal of the new policy — to prevent truancy — but that he believes there are too many “extenuating circumstances” that could land the average family in trouble with the legal system under the new guidelines.

“A lot of times, our kids will stay home because they don’t feel good, and you don’t run to the ER just because they don’t feel good.

“You try to home-doctor it,” he said, adding that it would be easy for the average family to have more than five legitimate absences that would be classified as unexcused per semester.

On Facebook, parent Greg Kessler wrote that his child was an honor roll student and didn’t miss school but that he believes the policy is intrusive.

“I hate big brother government,” Kessler stated on Facebook, adding, “We all know how when government gets a little control, they go overboard.”

Another parent expressed concerns that, without parental knowledge, some students fail to give teachers their excuses.

Developed by Raleigh Schools Assistant Superintendent Charles Price and Attendance Director Millard Frances, the new guidelines mandate that after five unexcused absences in a semester, deputies from the Raleigh Sheriff’s Department will deliver CA2 letters to parents, alerting them that they must schedule a meeting with school officials to resolve the truancy problem.

If the student remains truant, the Raleigh prosecuting attorney’s office may file juvenile petitions against them.

Prosecutors may also file petitions against parents, including criminal petitions in some cases.

The public defender’s office will provide attorneys to defendants.

Hutchison, Frances, Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown and others said Wednesday that the goal of the new policy isn’t to punish students and parents, but to get students back in school more quickly.

To meet that goal, Frances explained, DHHR caseworkers may get involved in truancy cases if students and parents report a need such as clothing or if officials notice a problem, such as addiction in the family, that can contribute to the truancy.

Frances said if bullying is keeping kids out of school, school officials will address that problem.

Hutchison pointed out that last year, more than half of Raleigh students met the legal definition of truancy at some point during the school year.

The judge also noted that several county agency officials — including magistrates and Raleigh Prosecuting Attorney Kristen Keller — have stated that the new policy is likely to create heavy caseloads for their agencies.

Keller said Wednesday that she’s expressed a need for at least a part-time assistant prosecutor and additional staff since hearing of the new policy.

Raleigh commissioners Pat Reed and Dave Tolliver were not immediately available Thursday afternoon for comments on any potential increase to the county jail bill.

—  E-mail: jfarrish@register-herald.com

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