WINFIELD – The Putnam County court system has found success in preventing school truancy with a program that changed how it handles such cases.
Now, fewer children are dropping out of school and missing classes.
“We primarily altered the manner in which we started handling truancy cases in 2009,” Circuit Judge Phillip Stowers said. “We started bringing them to court in a timelier manner.
"Sometimes the truancy cases would take five months to get through the system. So we just revered the manner in which to file to a 10-day schedule after there is an actual chargeable truancy.”
Another change that proved successful was to offer something to the students that encouraged change: a diversion program. This gave students a chance to work toward improvement.
“The first step of the case was to bring the kids to diversion meeting to where they met informally with court officials, probations, and the department to discuss why they were truant,” Stowers said. “If they wanted to be moved on to a hearing and get a lawyer, then they could offer that. If they wanted to work informally, then they could choose to do an improvement plan.
"The plan essentially flipped flopped how handle truancy. And the results kind of followed that.”
Truancy in Putnam County has decreased more than 60 percent since the program began in 2009. The dropout rate also decreased about 50 percent between 2010 and 2014.
Students are not only attending classes but they are also graduating. The county’s four-year graduation rate increased from 78.2 percent to 90.2 percent in that same five-year period and the five-year graduation rate increased from 83.5 percent to 87.2 percent.
Stowers credited the victory not only to the court but to the dedicated efforts of the school board.
“The school board agreed, because they are the complaining witness, they agreed to allow the diversion program to be the first step," Stowers said. "They didn’t have to agree to that.
"They could have filed a complaint and demanded a hearing and a trail under the law. So the school board agreed to the diversion process. Once the diversion occurred, then the parent and the child is brought in. And if they agreed to the diversion process, then there was never a case filed. There would be only a diversion case filed.”
Agreeing to the diversion program was a great way to instill change, Stowers said. But the court and school needed someone to directly handle and oversee the truant cases.
“Two years after we started the program, we needed an officer who would work for me: a court probation office," he said. "It had to be a court probation office to go out and look after all the kids with the signed contract. We didn’t have any manpower for that.
"So the school board, in 2011, agreed to pay for our probation officer to look after the outcome of the truancy cases. So, basically the school board agreed to diversion and then they agreed to pay for a probation officer plus their salary and benefits and all the travel time. They agreed to pay that to follow up and make sure the child was doing well in school. That added to a better outcome in 2013 and 2014.”
Reaction to the new program and change was mostly good among students and parents. However, there were some parents who were apprehensive and did not appreciate the state’s “interference.”
“Well, different parents react different ways," Stowers said. "Some want to encourage their children to succeed in life and do well in school. And some take the opinion that state action is interfering with them doing what they want to do in their home. And they can choose to educate their children in their way.”
However, Stowers said truancy can be an indicator for problems at the home.
“A lot of parents are into things that they didn’t want any one know about that’s going on in their home," he said. "This is the genesis of most truancy cases.
"Truancy is like a smoke detector at home. It may go off and show there is a fire, and we need to rush out there to acutely handle the problem. It make also just indicated that there is smoke and it’s smoldering and an issue, a more serious issue, is getting ready to happen.
"No matter what, a child not going to [middle or high] school means that there is a problem some where, whether it’s the family, child, or substance abuse. And you have to think that some of the parents involved in substance abuse aren’t very happy to have a probation office standing on their porch inquiring about why their child isn’t coming to school.”
Regardless of some trepidation from parents, Stowers said the program proved to be such a success that it is being used as a model for other counties.
“Because of the success of this program and school based probation officers, the new Juvenile Justice Bill included a model that [other] counties can follow that pretty much tracks the model that we started," he said. "It allows other counties who haven’t addressed truancy the way we have to role it out in a model similar to ours. I think this bill is trying that model to all 55 counties.”
As a closing victory, the Putnam County school board finally is getting some money back from the program.
“Several years ago a bill was passed in the Legislature to let the school board recoup some of their money that they have paid for the school based probation officers," Stowers said. "Putnam County had been paying 100 percent of the officer’s salary.
There was bill passed two years that said that the state school board should get 50 percent of their money back. But no one ever funded that in the budget. So last year, the Legislature passed Juvenile Justice Reform. And as a result of that, the governor’s office decided that if counties hired probation officers to work with truancy children, then they would get half their money back. I announced last to the school board.
"They are going to receive $39,000 back, which is the first time since the program started."