Schools, court and community partner to lower truancy

Schools, court and community partner to lower truancy

(Ohio) In an effort to keep more children in school and out of the juvenile justice system, local school administrators, community leaders, juvenile court officials and representatives from the prosecutor’s office are working to develop new procedures and programming aimed at reducing truancy.

Ohio’s new truancy law, which took effect during the current 2017-2018 school year, seeks to decriminalize truancy. Districts must now emphasize early detection and provide assistance to families by partnering with community organizations to help get students back in school and reduce the number of truancy cases filed in juvenile court.

In Paulding County, the juvenile court system and local prosecutors are working with district officials to ensure schools have assistance available in addressing attendance issues. The courts also announced the county’s first Diversion/Attendance Officer, who will act as a liaison between the schools and juvenile court.

“Since taking office, one of my top priorities has been to improve communication and collaboration with the schools,” said Michael Wehrkamp, a juvenile court judge in Paulding County. “Especially considering all of the changes to Ohio’s truancy laws, our partnership with Western Buckeye ESC and educators is coming at just the right time. While the new law sets minimum requirements for schools and juvenile courts to follow, with the creation of our new Diversion/Attendance Officer position and our county wide partnerships, we are proudly going above and beyond the minimum standards to help our students.”

Ohio schools are now required to conduct specific intervention activities before a student could be disciplined for chronic absenteeism, and can no longer suspend or expel a student solely on the basis of unexcused absences.

According to the State Department of Education, districts can utilize continuum of strategies to reduce student absence including developing and implementing absence intervention plans, providing counseling and mediation, offering parent education programs, or working with juvenile authorities to implement intervention programs.

The law also removes “excessive truancy” as a punishable offense under the state’s zero tolerance policies for violent, disruptive or inappropriate behavior.

Ohio has joined the growing number of states–which includes Massachusetts, Minnesota, California, Illinois, New York, Michigan and Texas, as well as Washington D.C.–which have moved away from harsh zero tolerance policies in favor of restorative justice practices and other holistic methods to address truancy and student misbehavior.

Schools will have to form an absence intervention team for any student labeled habitually truant–defined as being absent 30 or more consecutive hours without a legitimate excuse, absent 42 or more hours in one school month without a legitimate excuse, or being absent 72 or more hours in one school year without a legitimate excuse.

Each intervention team is to be comprised of a school or district administrator, a teacher and a parent or guardian, but may also include a school social worker, counselor or psychologist. The teams are required to establish a student-centered absence intervention plan that identifies specific barriers to attendance and outlines solutions, according to the Ohio Department of Education said.

If a student does not make progress on their absence intervention plan or continues to be excessively absent, the district may file a complaint in juvenile court. State law now defines excessive absenteeism as missing 38 or more hours in one school month with or without a legitimate excuse, or being absent 65 or more hours in one school year with or without a legitimate excuse.

Elizabeth Zartman, the county’s new Diversion/Attendance Officer, said that relying on schools, the courts and community organization to keep students in school will help limit the barriers students may face, but noted that it’s important to set attainable goals for children to reach as they improve their attendance.

Developing realistic plans to combat truancy problems will both reduce filings in the juvenile court and strengthen the community, she said.