CHARLESTON -- The spring Circuit Judges' Education Conference in Charleston focused in large part on ways the judiciary can help children in West Virginia.

Many sessions during the four-day conference at the Embassy Suites Hotel were devoted to children's issues, the highlight of which was a discussion on truancy.

The 70 circuit judges in West Virginia, five Supreme Court justices and senior status judges who want to remain eligible to be assigned to cases must attend education conferences twice each year to earn continuing legal education credits.

The conferences are sponsored by the Supreme Court and West Virginia Judicial Association.

The latest legislation, truancy, court technology and updates on the West Virginia child protection system, child abuse and neglect co-petitioning and sentencing practices that reduce recidivism were among the different topics the judges learned about.

The truancy discussion on June 16 was led by Barbour and Taylor Counties Judge Alan Moats.

Moats initiated an anti-truancy and dropout program in Barbour and Taylor Counties when he realized many of the same people who appeared before him in criminal cases had previously appeared before him in truancy cases.

Moats said the majority of inmates in West Virginia prisons are high school dropouts, and that more than half of Barbour and Taylor County students miss more than 10 days of school each year.

"When students are not in school, they are giving up their constitutional right to a free education," Moats said. "We have a culture of absenteeism and dropping out in this state."

Moats said it is a national problem, as the United States' graduation rate is 19th among developed countries.

"It affects every aspect of life, including national security," he said.

Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis, who is leading the Supreme Court's effort to support the judiciary's truancy programs, said the court is completely committed to seeing the program through.

"As Judge Moats said, this is war and we must win this war," Davis said.

"This issue affects every aspect of life in our state. It results in lower standards of living, increased illegal drug use, higher crime rates, overcrowding in jails and prisons and an ever-more powerful continuing trend of absenteeism and dropouts -- a trend that must be stopped. The three branches of government have united in this fight. Our state judiciary will be a leader in that fight."

Many circuit judges also operate juvenile drug courts, which Justice Brent Benjamin said were valuable programs, just as the truancy programs are valuable.

"The truancy programs of the court, like our juvenile drug court system in West Virginia, serve to protect our children and treat those in need," Benjamin said. "Ultimately, our goal is to save those at risk and change lives for the better."

State Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple; Board of Education President Priscilla Haden; Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale; and House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling also spoke to the judges in support of cross-branch anti-truancy programs.

Haden said the West Virginia Constitution requires the board to provide a thorough and efficient education to all students, but it cannot do that if they are not in school.

Educators need help from the community, Haden said, including the judiciary and doctors who write too many non-legitimate excuses, to keep children where they need to be during school hours.

Marple said many issues schools must deal with are not created by schools -- like obesity, truancy and poverty -- and cannot be solved by schools alone.

The problems are exacerbated by chronic stress that many children suffer as a result of living in poverty, as the majority of West Virginia children do, Marple said.

Studies show that stress can be alleviated by more arts, more access to technology, more physical activity and more personal relationships, which the schools strive to do, Marple said.

"But we don't have a chance to make school more engaging for children if they aren't there," Marple said. "We can't afford any more to not be a team. It is time for this team to act now, not tomorrow."

Several other West Virginia judges also operate anti-truancy programs. Each judge's program is a different and is designed to meet that circuit's needs.

Nicholas County Judge Gary L. Johnson modeled the program he has operated for two years on Moats' program.

The Nicholas County program takes the truancy process out of magistrate court. Truant students in elementary school are handled through the DHHR educational neglect system. Ultimately, students can be taken out of their homes if they do not attend school.

Middle school and high school students are handled through the juvenile justice status offender system.

Juvenile delinquency petitions are filed and students are placed on probation until they turn 18 or until they graduate from high school.

"It's more of a student problem than a parent problem when they get to middle school," Johnson said.

Johnson has four requirements for truants on probation: students must attend school regularly without any unexcused absences; if they have any disciplinary write-ups those are considered probation violations; students must work, they cannot just lay their heads on their desks; and medical excuses must be verified by a probation officer.

While on probation, the DHHR can help students who have other problems, Johnson said.

"I had a girl on probation tell me, 'I didn't know anybody cared if I went to school or not,'" Johnson said.

Wayne Circuit Judge James H. Young Jr. said he has been working with a special truancy probation officer funded by the Wayne County Board of Education since January 2009.

Students who have missed more than five days of school get a letter from the school board's compliance officer, Young said. If they do not respond or do not account for the missed days, the probation officer files a juvenile petition.

Young said he also puts truant students on probation with certain stipulations, but only for one year or until they graduate, whichever comes first.

If the students do not comply with probation, Young said he can remove them from their homes, which he has done four times.

"Education is the basis of everything," Young said. "If we don't have an educated electorate, government doesn't function and democracy suffers."

Putnam Circuit Judge Phillip M. Stowers said he set up a truancy program two years ago that begins in magistrate court, which he calls "truancy triage."

Stowers said students get letters telling them to come to court within two weeks of missing too much school.

Representatives of DHHR, the prosecutor, and the school system are in Magistrate Linda Hunt's courtroom when each student arrives with a parent. If the family promises to do better, and then does, no juvenile delinquency petition is filed.

But, Stowers said, if they do don't, the case moves to circuit court.

Stowers said he does not have to waste time with an improvement period, because that already has occurred. The process is faster and students miss less school.

Fayette County Judge John W. Hatcher Jr. has been working with Judy Lively at the Fayette County Board of Education for about eight years on truancy cases.

During the last school year, Hatcher said he has visited five of the county's high schools to talk to students who were at risk of dropping out of school.

Hatcher said he talked to them about the value of a high school education and how important education is to getting a job.

Unfortunately, many of the students' parents themselves do not have high school diplomas, he said.

Hatcher said some of the students have to stay home to care for younger siblings and sometimes the parents are out all night and cannot get up in the morning to get the students to school.

"A number of people in the system don't care if they are in school or not because they are a problem when they are there," Hatcher said. "I told them somebody cares, and they should, too."

Judges who have truancy programs will make presentations at the fall judicial conference so all the judges can learn from each other.

More News