The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 5, 2013

Officials believe truancy often an indicator of larger problems

Goal of Raleigh's new policy is to get families the help they need and keep kids in school

BECKLEY — Recent hearings under Raleigh County’s new truancy policy have brought to light what Circuit Court Judge John Hutchison and other officials have known for some time: Truancy is often an indicator of a much larger problem within a family.

“There are lots of families out there that need help in other areas, and all the truancy does is point out that they’ve got problems,” said Hutchison, who developed the policy with help from Raleigh Schools Superintendent Jim Brown, Attendance Director Millard Francis and others.

“We need to help them start addressing these other problems.”

In October, Hutchison heard 22 cases involving truancy, and he said the new policy is helping keep students in school.

The goal of the policy is to make sure families get help they need and reduce truancy rates.

The stakes are high, according to statistics.

“Eighty-five percent of people who plead guilty for crimes in my court do not have a high school diploma,” Hutchison reported, adding that the annual cost to taxpayers of keeping incarcerating one prisoner for a year is $38,000.

Studies show that around 80 percent of the United States prison population didn’t finish high school or get a general equivalency diploma (GED) and that 70 percent of the prisoners who dropped out of high school are functionally illiterate.

Raleigh County’s new truancy policy allows five unexcused absences. Excuses for absences must be submitted within 48 hours.

Raleigh sheriff’s deputies serve letters to parents of truant juveniles. Then, parents and sometimes juveniles must appear before Hutchison.

If the truancy continues after several offenses, parents may serve jail time, and juveniles may be placed under a juvenile petition or, in an extreme case, sent to a facility where they must attend school.

Of those 22 children whose parents appeared in court, Hutchison said, 13 are back in school.

The rest are bringing to light problems within the county that must be addressed by school administrators or the Department of Health and Human Resources and other agencies.

“Bullying is a big complaint, and it’s something we have to look into,” Hutchison said. “The Board of Education has been ordered to do an investigation into those types of cases and report back on what they’re finding.”

In some of the cases, Hutchison said, the students first reported the bullying following a truancy hearing.

Hutchison said some kids reported that they had panic attacks in crowded hallways when they had to change classes.

In those cases, he said, educators are developing plans under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act to allow the students to change classes at times when the hallways aren’t crowded.

Truancy can sometimes point to serious issues within families, he reported.

“There’s more to the family dynamic than just the kid not going to school,” he said. “We expected to find that.”

Hutchison said he was impacted by one mother who testified that her teenage son “cusses” her when she tries to get him to attend school.

“That’s a symptom of a deeper problem and is going to need some resources put in place to try and help that parent, but also figure out what’s going on with the kid,” said the judge. “What is the dynamic that’s causing that?”

Hutchison acknowledged that socioenomics play a role in truancy. Some parents face economic challenges. Some need help breaking generational cycles that may contribute to not making education a priority.

“I have seen some kids that are just being silly and stupid and ditching school, but I’ve also seen some kids who are in families that have needs, and the needs are more than forcing the kid to get out of bed and go to school in the morning,” he said.

“There are underlying problems that have to be addressed, and we’re working diligently to address those kinds of issues.”

Hutchison said one current goal of prosecutors is to find a way to hold both parents accountable for truancy, regardless of their marital status.

“I made it clear to the prosecutor and board of education that we’ve got to try to start figuring out how we can create a situation where non-participating parents start getting the message that ... they’ve got an obligation,” said Hutchison. “Why should that (uninvolved parent) be walking around free and clear and feel like he has no obligation to help support and manage and help raise his children?

“It takes two to tango, and it takes two to raise a child.”

The new truancy policy gives Hutchison more leeway in helping those truant students who receive Social Security disability checks.

County governments must certify each year that the eligible students are enrolled in school in order for the checks to be issued.

Some of those students, said Hutchison, have shown up at the start of the school year in order to “be certified.”

Although they didn’t officially drop out, they stopped attending classes after they were certified.

The new truancy policy is a safety net so that those students don’t “slip through the cracks.”

“We’ve got to let them know, you can’t come for the first week or so, get your certification that you’re enrolled for your Social Security, then quit coming,” said Hutchison. “It’s better for them to get in school because any education they get has got to improve their future possibilities.

“That’s what our goal is.”

In extreme cases in which juveniles won’t cooperate with parents and authorities who are making reasonable efforts to get them to school, punitive action may be needed.

“In that case, we’re going to put juvenile probation in it,” he said, adding that children may also be removed from the home if they refuse to cooperate.

The judge said that many agencies  — Raleigh Sheriff’s department, prosecutor’s office, Department of Health and Human Services, juvenile probation office, public defender’s office and others — have pulled together, with agents volunteering their time and effort, to make the new policy successful in helping students.

Hutchison approved the hire of an assistant prosecutor to focus on the truancy cases due to an extreme need, he said, but the cost of enacting the new policy has been negligible due to the many agents who are volunteering.

“Whether you like Hillary Clinton or not, her comments, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ are absolutely correct,” said Hutchison. “We’re trying to be that community in this way.

“I hope this program is one method to try to break that cycle.”

Hutchison said the court won’t be “rolling out the red carpet” because it’s expected that parents and students will do their part to correct any truancy problem.

“I want to give them a hand up, not a hand out,” he said. “They need to start working as hard as we’re going to help them.

“It might be a little tough to start, but we’ve got to figure out a way to get involved.

“If we don’t, we’re just creating another generation that’s going to just continue the cycle.”

The numbers of absences in county schools for the month of October aren’t yet available, but Hutchison said he expects to see a “significant” decrease in unexcused absences.

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

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