Schools, courts tackle truancy with collaborative agreement

Keeping kids in school while also finding the root causes of truancy is at the heart of a collaboration between the South Whidbey School District, Island County Juvenile Court and Northwest Educational Service District.

Over the course of the 2016-17 school year, the partnership will work to reduce chronic absenteeism and involvement of truant students in the court system by implementing “culturally appropriate practices” and “evidence based services” which include community truancy boards and stay petitions.

Community truancy boards are intervention programs designed to improve graduation rates among truant youth and protect them from influences that contribute to both truancy and juvenile delinquency, according to a 2015 Washington State Truancy Report. A stay petition is a legal action filed in appeal courts to stop a decision of a lower court.

The agreement also complies with a mandate in House Bill 2449, passed in March 2016, which instructs school districts to have active community truancy boards by the 2017-18 school year.

Superintendent Jo Moccia said in an email that there has not been an increase in truancy and absenteeism in the school district, but the service is still needed. School districts file truancy petitions with the juvenile court when a student has accumulated seven unexcused absences in one month or 10 unexcused absences in an academic year.

“We do have some issues and hopefully this will motivate those students to come to school,” Moccia said. “There are a variety of factors that cause truancy. Hopefully the joint effort will provide support to students prior to having to provide any kind of punishment.”

Under the agreement, the school district will participate in a community truancy board workshop series offered by the Northwest Educational Service District, collaborate with the juvenile court to coordinate interventions for truant and chronically absent students, and utilize data to determine appropriate interventions, according to school documents.

Andrew Somers, administrator at Island County Juvenile Court, hopes to implement the services sooner than what is mandated.

“We’d really like to unveil it in the spring or late spring,” Somers said.

Somers said the agreement is a direct result of evidence-based research and a promising methods of how to deal with truancy in Washington State. One of the major requirements of the mandate is developing school-based intervention practices and prevention efforts. There are not a multitude of formal intervention practices available to the juvenile court at this time, Somers said. He said one intervention practice currently offered includes functional family therapy, where a therapist meets with families and identifies and treats some familial challenges that may be causing a student to become truant.

“At this point, they’re kind of in development,” Somers said.

There are a myriad of factors that lead to absenteeism, said Somers, including familial problems, physical abuse or neglect, bullying, and mental health issues.

He said that understanding the risk factors involved and responding to them will be a key to the new program’s success.

“Typically, I think kids want to learn and they want to go to school and there’s some barriers sometimes,” Somers said. “Breaking down those barriers and accessing education is vital.”

Community truancy boards are completely new territory for the juvenile court, Somers said. Experience from volunteer boards similar in nature, such as a community accountability board where community members presided over consequences for first time offenders in juvenile court, will aid in the development of community truancy boards.

“What we need to make sure of is that the uniqueness of the board and the composition of it is geared toward the community,” Somers said.

Moccia will work directly with the juvenile court as the district’s designee in creating and establishing one or multiple community truancy boards. Once a board or boards are established, the juvenile court will assign each school in the district with a truancy probation officer who will monitor students based on the level of concerns and attendance for each student, according to school documents.

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