Archived Story

Cass County declares war on truancy

Published 9:29pm Thursday, September 15, 2011

Cass County declared war Aug. 31 on truancy as a stepping-stone to expensive delinquent and criminal behavior.
Studies conclude chronic absenteeism ranks as the most powerful predictor of delinquent behavior, which is why a dozen truancy team members assembled at Lewis Cass Intermediate School District headquarters, including Probate/Family Court Judge Susan Dobrich, Cass County Sheriff Joseph Underwood, Prosecutor Victor Fitz, Dowagiac Deputy Police Chief Steve Grinnewald, Marcellus Community Schools Supt. Ronald Herron, Friend of Court Roland Fancher, Department of Human Services Interim Director Cindy Underwood, Woodlands Behavioral Health CEO Kathy Emans and Robert Colby, LCISD superintendent.
“Truancy is a symptom of a greater problem and is largely a family matter as opposed to a student discipline issue,” Colby said. “The causes of truancy are as varied as the students themselves, but are often poverty, neglect, lack of parental support, boredom, peer influence and substance abuse.
“Regardless of the causes, truancy has long-term effects for the student, the schools and the community. Students with excessive absenteeism struggle in school, have a high incidence of disciplinary issues at school and are at high risk of dropping out of school. Students not attending school are far more likely to engage in substance abuse, criminal activity and other high-risk behaviors.
“Schools and communities suffer economic consequences of truancy,” Colby continued. “Schools lose out on funding due to absent students. Schools, accountable for student achievement, are also penalized for a lack of student growth due to absenteeism.
“Communities suffer the expenses of reacting to delinquent behaviors and providing intervention services, as well as the lost productivity of uneducated young adults,” the LCISD superintendent stated. “Research tells us that 44 percent of all violent juvenile crimes committed by teenagers occur between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.
“The school districts of Cass County are committed to a united and comprehensive approach to addressing truancy in our county. In cooperation with law enforcement and our court system, it is our intent to reduce and/or eliminate truancy for the benefit of our students, our families and the communities of Cass County,” Colby said. “Not one of our school districts in the county can say they don’t have a truancy program. Not one. Some have more of a problem than others and some have more of a truancy problem than they’ll admit. But they all committed to dealing with it.”
The four-page Cass County Truancy Protocol and Prevention Program drafted in May and finalized June 15 is also signed by Cassopolis Public Schools Supt. Gregory Weatherspoon, Dowagiac Union Schools Supt. Mark Daniel, Edwardsburg Public Schools Supt. Sherman Ostrander, Cassopolis Police Chief Frank Williams, Dowagiac Public Safety Director Thomas Atkinson and Ontwa Township/Edwardsburg Police Chief Kenneth Wray.
Dobrich agreed with Colby that truancy is related to delinquency, controlled substance use and abuse, high school dropout, suicidal thoughts and attempts and early sexual intercourse.
“Truancy is not only the most significant risk factor for predicting first-time marijuana use,” she said, “it also predicts 97 percent of first-time drug use. There are a variety of family, community and individual characteristics that have been identified that can contribute to the problem of truancy.
Fancher said the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO), which has also strategized on how best to address truancy, selected Cass County because of its reputation for collaboration.
“Cass County is king or queen of collaboration, depending on your perspective,” the judge said. “We work well together.”
The collaborative effort of all these agencies led not only to information sharing, but also identification of existing services to assist family units as a whole.
The truancy initiative is preventive rather than punitive, officials stressed.
Its primary task is to return students to school, though the truancy program will provide both accountability and consequences.
School districts, through LCISD assistance, will do early referrals to Family Court for intervention because of absenteeism.
The court will thereafter provide appropriate referral to the “truancy disposition team” consisting of the Prosecutor’s Office, DHS, Woodlands and school representatives to determine disposition alternatives meant to reduce or eliminate the child’s absenteeism.
In extreme cases, however, criminal consequences for parents failing to send their children may be used.
But the focus and purpose are preventive to insure that all children have the opportunity to attend school and do attend. It is their intent to reduce and, if possible, eliminate truancy.
Dobrich’s court will also be involving Friend of the Court in this process, “an aspect that makes this really different. Having Friend of the Court is a cool idea that came from the SCAO.”
“Often,” she said, “an issue of truancy is a result of family discourse during periods of separation of their parents or other issues between parents” which might cross state lines, so services available through Friend of the Court will be employed.
Woodlands has agreed to provide additional counseling services for youth who are petitioned to court for truant behavior.
“Through collaboration of agencies and early intervention,” the judge said, “we will hopefully prevent many of the consequences of truancy that have been outlined.”
“Children need to be in school,” Fitz said. “This collaborative truancy program gives willing parents help to get their kids to school. WIthout a good education, kids all too quickly retreat to the fringe of society. We don’t want our children spending their adulthood in ignorance, oblivion and the criminal justice system. Alarmingly, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation places our national 18-year-old dropout rate at 29 to 32 percent. That means almost one-third of 18-year-olds nationwide aren’t graduating. This is unacceptable.”
“We need to wake up in this country,” the prosecutor said. “China, Russia, India, Europe and beyond are more than willing to take the jobs and markets for which our kids aren’t prepared. Cass County law enforcement, the courts, educators and responsible parents are working together to insure that kids are in school. But parents who don’t take the time to get their kids through the schoolhouse door should also take note. If they ignore this help, they risk criminal charges of educational neglect. Such a conviction carries mandatory incarceration for the offending parent.”
Colby said, “In today’s environment of high demand and high accountability, truancy is having a serious toll on schools. They don’t come to school on a regular basis and fall farther and farther behind, which negatively reflects on our student achievement results. It causes us to fall into this failure to make adequate yearly progress (AYP). Some schools end up on the persistently low-achieving list. Fortunately, Cass County doesn’t have that, but we do have some really serious, absolutely horrendous, truancy cases in Cass County, with young kids who rarely, if ever, go to school.”
The protocol document spells out the school districts and other team members sharing information so, as Dobrich explained, “We’re not going to have a family who lives in Edwardsburg who is truant and moves to Marcellus not be noticed. If there’s been a truant issue in the past, every year you’re not going to get a new bite of the apple. We want schools to have the discretion to jump on it right away rather than have to wait for 15 absences before we can do something.”
“If we don’t catch them soon, we don’t catch them at all,” Colby added. “This is aggressive, but doable. When truancy snowballed and got away from us is when we didn’t have an officer to follow up on it. Honestly, once we didn’t have a dedicated officer managing that it was redirected to an organization, like Lewis Cass ISD or Dowagiac schools.”
“It’s been over 10 years” since the county employed a truancy officer, according to Sheriff Underwood, who designated Deputy MaKenzie Kreiner as the primary contact for his office in Cassopolis and Marcellus.
“We’re going to. We’re in contact with the school, setting it up,” Grinnewald said.
“When you’ve got elementary kids not going to school, it’s not the child,” the sheriff stated. “If we can encourage that parent by giving them a little knock on the door and help them wake up and get that child off to school, I think we’ll see a turnaround in truancy. Parents have a lot of substance abuse problems, which causes another set of problems. I commend the judge and school systems for wanting to continue to collaborate and to think outside the box about how we can attack this with resources that we have so we don’t have to go to commissioners to talk about additional funding that’s just not there.”
Emans said Woodlands is implementing a “prevention model for school success where we can intervene with the children at school but also at home with the family, trying to identify underlying reasons behind truancy. Quite often, when small children are absent from school, it’s not due to the child’s behavior, but parenting.”
LCISD manages two grant-funded projects countywide, Families First and in-home parent education as part of school readiness. “We really stress the child development process and school attendance,” Colby said. “The mandatory age is still 16, which places us in a precarious predicament as a public school because we’re held accountable for graduation rates and student achievement results of 11th- and 12th-graders who don’t have to be there. That’s a challenge. There was legislation to take the compulsory attendance rate to 18 which I did not support because it doesn’t really address the issue. By and large, we’d be forcing young adults to stay in a place they don’t want to be, which is a recipe for disaster. When you’ve got a highly disruptive 17- or 18-year-old kid, he can take away learning opportunities for hundreds. That’s too simple of an approach” when local districts operate alternative education programs.
“There was a proposal tie-barred to that really did make sense,” Colby added. “It was the notion of stop funding grade 12 and start funding a year of preschool for every kid because we know a kid who has a preschool experience has exponential potential for school system. There are an awful lot of 12th grade kids who are ready to go on and do something else. We can provide a traditional school experience for those kids, but it’s probably not appropriate for them” compared to community college vocational training.
“Typically, there’s some kind of abuse or neglect,” Cindy Underwood of DHS said. “Not to the level that you’re going to talk removal, but services, referrals to community partners, to establish in the home that routine of kids being in schools. The other thing we see the effect of is when we’re working with people applying for assistance and they have to do job searches. One of the things we’re finding is they’re coming without high school education. You cannot do job seeking without a high school education, so we try to get them that. The newest thing that’s come out for families on cash assistance is that if you have a 16- or 17-year-old in your home and you’re taking care of that child, and that child is no longer in school, they will no longer qualify for assistance. They will fall off that grant. There’s even more motivation why parents need to keep kids in school. Those patterns are established as a young child.”
Colby commented, “My past experience in trying to deal with truancy, two things are most effective. One, getting the parent actively working with you. And two, getting the court actively involved in the process. Once the parent and families feel that they’re under the thumb of the court system, they’re far more cooperative. A 6-year-old who doesn’t come to school isn’t a truant, but if you’re the parent of a 6-year-old who doesn’t come to school, you’re a neglectful parent. You can’t confuse the issue of absenteeism and truancy because there are a lot of very legitimate reasons for kids being absent from school. There are no legitimate reasons for parents willfully withholding kids from school. That’s truancy. When kids are younger, it’s parents choosing not to send them. Our worst truancy cases are elementary third, fourth, fifth grade kids who by mid-year holiday break have missed 40 or 50 days, 90 days into a 180-day year. What happens quite often is when we start to turn the heat up on parents and let them know what their obligations are legally, they do one of two things. They jump ship and go to another school district. Or, they declare themselves home-schoolers, which is a legal loophole.”
“Hopefully,” Cindy Underwood said, “this will help re-establish the relationship between parents and school. It’s not school vs. parent, but them working together for the child.”
“You want to focus on the strengths of a family,” Dobrich said, “and those who graduate have a better chance at succeeding in life. Eighty percent of the kids in our foster care system are there because of substance abuse,” including parents “who cannot get up in the morning. If you look at the abuse and neglect docket, the reason the case is there is something else and truancy is always underlying.”
“We don’t have to turn the corner on very many kids and families to realize real economic gain in the county,” Colby pointed out. “If you don’t have to send one kid out of the county for placement, that’s real money. If our law enforcement people respond to 10 percent fewer daytime crimes because of truancy, that’s real money.”
“We already know that the highest crime rates in the country are between 3 and 5 when kids are out of school and their parents are working,” Dobrich said.
Superintendent Herron said the trend of families leaving Michigan in droves looking for employment opportunities has slowed. “We’re seeing more transient movement across district boundaries,” he said, “whether it’s within Cass County or with bordering schools. That seems to be the trend right now.”

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