The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

October 13, 2012

Fayette ready to battle truancy

By C.V. Moore
Register-Herald Reporter

— A new program aimed at combating Fayette County’s truancy problem will create a Community Truancy Board at Oak Hill High School this year, where 603 of 981 students last year were considered habitual truants.

“Our hope would be to rescue these students and provide them with services in the community to help them get back in school and be successful graduates,” Fayette County Schools Superintendent Keith Butcher told the county commission on Friday.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has awarded $42,960 for three years to the Fayette County Board of Education to implement the program. Friday, Butcher and Center of Hope Executive Director Bill Sohonage presented details of the plan to the commission, which has agreed to be the “pass-through” administrator of the grant.

The program will create a 15- to 21-member Community Board of Truancy that will hold its own hearings for truant youth, rather than prosecute them in court and establish a criminal record.

“The model is relatively simple,” says Sohonage. “All it does is what (Fayette County Director of Attendance) Judy Lively and the prosecutor’s office say they need — a methodology whereby we can evaluate the real reason kids are truant. Right now, short of adjudication, we cannot evaluate a child.”

Drug tests, full evaluations and other tools will give the board “the ability to work together as a community” to address each child’s issues on an individual basis, says Sohonage.

"The key in the program, I believe, is the word ‘community,’” he says. “We have to and must have community stakeholders and buy-in. The school board cannot take responsibility alone.”

Sohonage says taking a youth to court for truancy is usually considered a last resort, something to be avoided, because once a child is in the criminal justice system they usually drop out of school.

“Our circuit court judges’ valiant efforts have made some meaningful impact in Fayette County as far as adjudicating 47 students in the county for truancy last year,” he says. “But that is merely the tip of the iceberg.”

After reviewing 211 models, the grant applicants settled on the “Spokane Model,” which has found wide success in parts of Washington state, where truancy rates in the 40-50 percent range were brought down to about 8 percent, according to Sohonage.

Besides high levels of truancy, he says the parallels between Washington and West Virginia are striking in other ways. For example, he says prescription drug addiction played a role in truancy out west, an issue some suspect may be partly behind Fayette County’s problem. Both states also have small, rural schools.

“We feel we have a model here that has been very successful in a state that is socio-economically and geographically very similar to ours,” he says. “The model has also been selected by the OJJDP as their favorite model.”

The pilot project will target Oak Hill High school, where 41 percent of students missed more than 10 days and 19 percent missed more than 20 days last year. Truancy numbers at Oak Hill have been increasing for the past three years.

“My dream is that we would eventually be able to expand this county-wide and add another tool to get kids in the classroom so they can learn,” says Butcher.

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At its Friday meeting, the Fayette County Commission also signed off on the final draft of a letter to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission requesting a high-level study of the potential impacts of releasing more water from the Hawks Nest Dam for commercial and private whitewater recreation.

The Hawks Nest and Glen Ferris Hydroelectric projects are up for relicensing, and as part of the evaluation process, studies can be suggested on any number of aspects of the Hawks Nest Dam's impact and operation, including the flows released downstream.

West Virginia Professional River Outfitters (WVPRO) and a number of other groups are hoping to supply more water to a 5.3 mile section of the New River known as “The Dries” in an effort to boost recreation tourism, while avoiding any negative impact on the utility operating the dam.

Bobby Bower of WVPRO says the groups “would never want to impact a job” at the WV Alloys smelting plant in Alloy, which buys power from Hawks Nest Hydro, a subsidiary of Brookfield Renewable Energy. Water pooling upstream of the dam is funneled through a 3.5-mile tunnel underneath Gauley Mountain to a hydroelectric plant near Gauley Bridge.

The county commission has neither endorsed or opposed the proposal, but is in favor of a study.

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Fayette County, which has one of the largest K-9 units in the state, is set to host the West Virginia Police Canine Association’s 17th annual statewide K-9 training session in the spring of 2013 at the Fayette County Park. During the event, 70 to 80 K-9 teams gather to train and certify their animals.

Fayette County was selected to host the event, which runs April 22-26, and Cpl. Shannon Morris says the park is an ideal setting, with “lots of training areas, woods, fields and access to buildings to hide drugs and bombs.”

He says the dogs are trained in a safe, “controlled environment” and that the county will not take on any liability. Work release inmates will likely help prepare the area. Provided the Police Canine Association has insurance for the event, the commission approved of the use.

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The commission voted to reimburse the Southern Appalachian Labor School (SALS) for $1,500 in expenses related to housing FEMA Corps at its dorm in Beards Fork for one month. Ten FEMA Corps members are living there while they assist in FEMA’s disaster relief activities in Fayette and Raleigh counties. A request that Raleigh County pay for half of these costs will be submitted to the Raleigh County Commission.

SALS Director John David also distributed booklets documenting two summer work camps, sponsored by SALS, that used volunteer Christian youth to repair and improve low-income homes in Oak Hill and Belle. The glowing remarks of residents are accompanied by photos.

“This week has changed my life in so many ways,” said one Oak Hill resident. “Not only the improvements to my home, but the improvements the young people have made on my heart.”

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The county’s new animal shelter building is now “under roof,” but there is still some work to do before it’s ready for its four-legged residents.

Allen Ballard, Fayette’s Building Code Enforcement Officer, was given latitude to choose among three equal bids for the heating and cooling system, based on which company can move quickest.

The county accepted a bid from Glidden Paints for block filler and epoxy. Bids for the construction of aluminum kennel gates and the application of epoxy by airless sprayer have yet to be awarded. The former may need to be advertised publicly, the latter is up to Ballard’s discretion because it’s under $15,000.

— E-mail: cmoore@register-herald.com