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New truancy law aims to curb youth offenders

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New truancy law aims to curb youth offenders 
By Whitney Burdette, Capitol reporter, Charleston Daily Mail

West Virginia spends an astonishing amount of money each year on children in the juvenile justice system.

And as the number of children referred to state institutions, group homes and to out-of-state facilities increases, that number just continues to rise. The state Legislature this year took action and passed several bills aimed at decreasing the number of youth offenders and creating more community-based services to help them so they don’t have to go to these institutions.

Much of the time, the children referred to the juvenile justice system are there because they’re considered status offenders, meaning they’ve committed an act that’s only illegal because of their age. Truancy is one of these offenses. Over the past 10 years, there’s been a 124 percent increase in the number of truants referred to the state’s court system at exorbitant cost to state taxpayers.

“It’s placed so many kinds our court systems and has increased costs tremendously,” said Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam. “A court has to decide what to do with those children. A lot of times, they’ll take the kids and send them to a (Division of Juvenile Services) facility. When they go to the facility, they do an evaluation of the kids, up to 60 days, and it costs $31,000 per child. It’s expensive. After that, they have a report where they can decide where the child goes form there. Sometimes they send those children out of state.”

The state spends an average of $100,000 per year for each child in the juvenile justice system. For children in out-of-state placement, that number jumps to $109,000, Walters said.

“It’s costing taxpayers a tremendous amount of money,” Walters said. “Population percentage-wise, West Virginia leads the nation on institutionalized youth.”

A new law

The West Virginia Legislature has taken steps to cut down on the number of truants, in turn keeping costs down for taxpayers. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed House Bill 2550 last week, increasing the number of days students are allowed to miss without an excuse from five days to 10. The five-day threshold had been in place since 2010, when lawmakers reduced the number of allowable absences from 10 days to five in an effort to get more kids to attend school.

The new law, which passed the House 95-2 and the Senate 31-2, exempts absences due to health and disability reasons from the count. County attendance officers are required to meet with families of truant students in an attempt to curb truancy before the children are referred to court.

“One of the things we heard is, when the law was changed to lower this number from 10 days to five days, it had enormous consequences of kids getting referred to the system and taken out of their homes,” said Delegate Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson. Skinner, along with Walters, sat on the West Virginia Intergovernmental Task Force on Juvenile Justice — a coalition of member groups that made several recommendations to reduce the number of children in the court system.

The American Civil Liberties Union supported the bill and lobbied for its passage. ACLU West Virginia Director Jennifer Meinig said the bill will help decrease the number of kids referred to the judicial system for missing too much school by creating ways for the schools to intervene before it’s too late.

“Right now, West Virginia is experiencing a crisis in the number of children referred to juvenile court as a result of missing school,” she said. “Sending kids to court for truancy hurts their chances of finishing school and becoming productive adults.

“This legislation will provide much-needed time for parents and school administrators to intervene and develop workable solutions. We all want to keep kids in school and out of court, and this bill will undoubtedly help us achieve this goal.”

The bill also includes a tiered system. After three unexcused absences, a note is sent home to the parents. After five days, a second note is sent home and a conference with the student’s parents is required. After 10 days, the county attendance officer files a complaint with the courts against the parent or guardian.

The bill outlines what steps the judicial system can take if it is determined an unlawful offense has been committed.

Measuring up

In 2013, 1 in 3 West Virginia youths were considered truant, missing more than five unexcused days of school, according to the state Department of Education. McDowell, Wyoming, Gilmer, Lewis and Raleigh counties all had truancy rates of 50 percent or more for the 2013-14 school year, while Braxton, Lewis, McDowell, Logan and Wyoming saw truancy rates of 50 percent or above the previous school year.

Truancy isn’t a problem unique to West Virginia. Nationwide, states have been dealing with the issue for a number of years. In Wisconsin, an average of 15,600 students, or 1.6 percent, missed school each day of the 1998-99 academic year, accounting for about one third of absences for all students for the year. In 2004, 11 percent of third-graders, 23 percent of eighth-graders and 35 percent of 12th-graders attending the Denver Public School system were classified under state law as chronically truant with 10 or more unexcused absences. That same year, 32 percent of elementary kids, 46 percent of middle schoolers and 74 percent of high school students in Milwaukee were classified as habitually truant.

Nationally, 54 percent of truant students between 1990 and 1999 were boys, according to truancyprevention.org.

Addressing the problem

Although No Child Left Behind required schools to report their attendance rates, there is no national definition for truancy. Each state can define its own version of truancy and enforce its own laws. Neighboring states have enacted their own truancy laws with varying definitions of what constitutes truancy and how schools and law enforcement deal with the issue.

In Kentucky, students who miss three or more days without an excuse are considered truant. If students rack up six unexcused absences, they’re classified as habitually truant. More than half — 56 percent — of children between the ages of 10 and 17 were considered truant in 2010. Parents in Kentucky an face fines or jail time if their children miss too much school.

In Ohio, students who miss five or more consecutive days, more than seven days in a month or 12 days in a school year without an excuse are considered habitually truant. Chronically truant means missing seven consecutive days, 10 days a month or 15 in a year. Schools provide written notice to parents, who can be required to attend a parenting class. Schools also can file a complaint in juvenile court. Parents can face up to a $500 fine, 70 hours of community service or both. Repeated truancy can result in a misdemeanor charge. Older students who have their drivers licenses may have those privileges suspended until they are 18 or, in the case of dropouts, re-enrolled.

In Virginia, students are referred to the court system after the seventh unexcused absence. Students in Illinois are considered truant if they miss 10 percent of the 180-day school year and are referred to juvenile court.

Williams said the new law not only increases the number of unexcused absences but also attempts to address problems in the home that could lead to habitual absences.

“We’ve done some preventative measures to help decrease the number of truancies among our children,” Williams said. “Another thing we’ve done is within the Department of Health and Human Resources, we’ve worked on getting wraparound community services and increasing those.

“One of the biggest issues we had in the state is, let’s take McDowell County, how many services do they have within that community to take care of the children? Mostly they just weren’t existent. So we’ve worked with DHHR and gotten the federal government waiver to be able to spend funds in a way that we can put in those wraparound community services.”

Those services include investing in local Boys & Girls Clubs to pair younger children with an older mentor who can encourage school attendance, or placing doctors in rural areas to ward off potential health concerns before they lead to prolonged absences. The legislation includes funding for a probation officer in every county to work with families when a child nears the 10-day threshold to find out what’s going on and to try to help the child stay in school.

Williams said these efforts will help reduce the number of repeat truants.

“When we do institutionalize these youth and they come home, if they’re from a home with drug issues or other systemic issues, that issue has never been looked at so they’re going back to the same home where there may have been issues before,” he said. “There are repeat truancies and it’s because of the actual issue in the home.

“With this community service, they’re looking at in-home type services for the whole family. We’re hoping that not only gets kids in the school and curtailing the truancy problem but also to deal with whatever systemic issue is in the house.”

Tomblin signed House Bill 2550 on March 25. It goes into effect June 10.