CHARLESTON -- When the Supreme Court launched an initiative in 2011 to coordinate judicial truancy programs in West Virginia, we knew it would not be an easy task.
Children whose parents and grandparents may not have completed school themselves sometimes find it difficult to understand the importance of daily attendance. Add in the effects of the resulting multi-generational unemployment, underemployment, and poverty, and truancy in some homes is, therefore, part of the cultural fabric.
The state Department of Education is building a new data reporting system, ZoomWV, that will include a publicly accessible report on truancy by county. This grant-funded project should help state policymakers, local educators, judicial officers, and parents keep better track of the problem.
The judicial system is not waiting for those numbers to take action. In 2011, Nineteenth Judicial Circuit (Barbour and Taylor Counties) Judge Alan Moats and I appeared at fourteen regional meetings to discuss ways the court system can work with educators, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, and other community officials to keep children in school.
I have continued to meet with judges and educators. As a result, several circuits – including two of the largest, Kanawha and Raleigh – have launched truancy programs, overseen either by a circuit judge or a magistrate. Circuit judges that already had programs – like Putnam County – have continued to believe in their efficacy.
Truancy often leads to dropping out of school. The state graduation rate has increased from 75.54 percent in the 2008-09 school year to 81.39 percent in the 2012-13 school year, an indication that our efforts are bearing fruit.
A key part of judiciary truancy efforts is that they are tailored to individual communities. Local judicial officers are in the best position to know what would work best and what is needed most in their jurisdictions.
For example, Judge Moats works with attendance directors, principals, and teachers. Abuse and neglect charges can be filed against the parents of elementary school students who miss too much school. Representatives of Child Protective Services and the Department of Health and Human Resources attend those hearings in his courtroom because truancy of young children (who usually want to go to school but can’t because no one will get them up in the morning and either take them or get them ready for the school bus) can be a symptom of other problems, like drug or alcohol abuse or domestic violence.
An entire family’s problems have to be recognized so that truancy can be addressed.
Middle school and high school students are old enough to get themselves up and to school, so Judge Moats handles those as status offense cases. Teachers provide monthly reports to Judge Moats and probation officers meet with the student and parents monthly.
It’s a lot of work for a lot of people. But it appears to be having an effect. In Taylor County, for example, 23 dropped out of school in 2013 compared to 45 in 2009.
Twenty-eighth Judicial Circuit (Nicholas County) Judge Gary Johnson also was an early believer in judicial truancy programs. His efforts over the last five years have led to increased attendance (97.90 average daily attendance rate in the 2012-13 school year compared to 96 in the 2008-2009 school year), fewer dropouts (19 students in the 2012-13 school year compared to 87 in the 2007-08 school year) and fewer expulsions and out-of-school suspensions.
Judge Moats and Judge Johnson are the only judges in their circuits. By comparison, the three-judge Ninth Judicial Circuit (Mercer County) instituted a judicial truancy program in November 2011. Since then, all three circuit judges dedicate approximately 10 percent of their time toward truancy, plus at least four hours each per month conducting hearings after hours. (All truancy hearings are held after school.)
One juvenile probation officer works full time on truancy cases and another four devote about half their time to truancy. The truancy rate (percent of student body with five or more unexcused absences) in Mercer County dropped more than 19 percent after the first year of the program. Although it rose slightly in the second year, the overall two-year drop was still nearly a 15 percent reduction in truancy after two years. Ninth Judicial Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn speculates that the reason there was a slight increase in truancy during the second year (the 2012-2013 school year) was because there was less publicity, leading some to the inaccurate conclusion that truancy was no longer being vigorously pursued.
Between the beginning of the Mercer County program and the end of 2013, 361 truancy status offender cases were filed and 138 education abuse and neglect cases were filed. For the students involved in those cases, there was a 72 percent reduction in truancy, from an average of 4.5 missed days per month to 1.25 missed days per month. Nearly 60 percent missed less than five days, and many missed no school. Before being placed in the truancy program, the students on average had missed more than 28 days each.
In the Sixth Judicial Circuit (Cabell County), Judge Paul T. Farrell and Judge Alfred E. Ferguson have aggressively worked with schools, DHHR, prosecutors, and probation officers on truancy. One school-based truancy probation officer works in conjunction with school attendance officers and concentrates on the middle schools.
Prosecutors have filed numerous misdemeanor informations against parents who fail to send their children to school, resulting in increased attendance. The judges also have sent a few parents to jail. In 2013 alone, 149 truancy petitions were filed and 166 criminal warrants/informations were filed against parents. Of the 166, 26 were second offenses. The judges did not identify any abuse and neglect cases among these.
Like those in Cabell and Mercer, judges in Boone, Greenbrier, Logan, Monongalia, Putnam, and Wayne Counties have enlisted the help of school-based juvenile probation officers: the officers are employees of the Supreme Court, which has a Memorandum of Understanding with each county board of education.
Each of the probation officer positions is funded by a county board of education similar to, but NOT, a grant. The state Supreme Court invoices the local board quarterly and is then reimbursed.
From all who are involved, I've heard that this mission is the most frustrating and most rewarding that they've ever experienced. One thing's for sure: with the evidence of what happens when truancy is left unaddressed -- the resulting costs to society and the lower quality of life -- those of good conscience simply must continue this good fight. The very future of our state depends on it.
Davis is Chief Justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.