Truancy Academy funding waningPublished 7:57pm Thursday, February 14, 2013
ST. JOSEPH — The award-winning Berrien County Trial Court Truancy Academy’s days could be numbered.
“Our pitch to school districts,” Elvin Gonzalez, Family Division administrator of Berrien County Trial Court, told the Board of Commissioners Administration Committee Thursday morning, “is if you send a kid to Truancy Academy for one semester to get them re-engaged in school, you’re going to reap the benefit. Sixty-five percent stay in school after that one semester and they recoup.
“From a school district’s perspective, they see it as a budgetary issue. If I have to look at a budget priority, do I continue to fund Truancy Academy or lay off probation officers? This is a good program, but at the end of the day, the court is going to be looking at mandates unless we get districts willing to support it by sending referrals. School districts have to determine it’s a value to them. Those that use it see positive results, but this represents a small number of kids per school district.”
Before the economic downturn, there was even talk of an elementary Truancy Academy “to catch them early and head this off.”
“We have funding right now until the end of this school year and for first semester next year,” Gonzalez said.
“It’s been such a successful program that others looked at us to see what we were doing,” Commissioner Jim Curran said. “If we can’t do it because schools are not taking advantage of it, it’s back in their lap, and I know most of those kids are going to fall through the cracks because budgets are tight.”
“Truancy is a symptom of underlying drivers,” Gonzalez said. “They don’t go because they’re being bullied, don’t have clean clothes, they have to take care of younger siblings when they get sick, they don’t understand the work and feel embarrassed because they can’t keep up. There are a lot of different reasons for school attendance problems. That’s an area of opportunity for partnerships and to identify these kids early on. If they all of a sudden become truant in 10th grade, there’s a factor.”
Truancy Academy resulted in 2000 from a 1999 juvenile justice task force as a partnership between the court, school districts and service providers to keep chronic absenteeism (20 or more unexcused absences a semester) from leading to delinquency.
Originally, it involved Berrien Regional Education Service Agency in Berrien Springs. RESA pulled out due to budget considerations, so it’s now through Berrien Springs Public Schools near the juvenile center in Berrien Center.
Criteria include sixth to eighth graders ages 12 to 15 within Berrien County with a pattern of truancy or school refusal and absence of criminal activity and aggressive behavior.
Truancy Academy enrolled 26 of 52 referrals in 2010-2011; 32 of 42 referrals in 2011-2012; and 39 of 48 referrals in 2012-2013.
Referrals not accepted were for a variety of reasons, such as severe special education needs, prior criminal records, severe behavioral issues or medical issues.
Referrals from 2010 to 2013 include: Buchanan, 19; Benton Harbor, 17; Niles, 16; Eau Claire, six; Watervliet, six; New Buffalo, five; Brandywine, five; Bridgman, three; River Valley, three; Coloma, two; Countryside, two; River School, two; and Lakeshore, one. Some districts, such as St. Joseph, do not refer.
“Benton Harbor has stopped referring. They want to keep the foundation money,” Gonzalez said. “When those kids aren’t in school, it isn’t receiving ($7,300) foundation money every count day. They aren’t contributing to their graduation rates because they’re at high risk to drop out. And there is some correlation between truancy and getting involved in criminal conduct” such as marijuana or alcohol possession, domestic violence or retail fraud.
There is capacity for 25 court-ordered middle school students per semester.
“We’re targeting that age range because that’s when kids drop off the radar and become disengaged. We provide a full school day for them, driving them to and from their homes. We also provide home-based counseling to the kids and families.”
Gonzalez started with Berrien County Juvenile Center, worked 16 years in DuPage County, Ill., and assumed his current position 11 1/2 years ago the day after 9/11 — Sept. 12, 2001.
As Family Division administrator, he reports to Presiding Judge Scott Schofield while overseeing the Court Services Division (probation officers), the Juvenile Center in Berrien Center, the Probate Division and the Intake Division — almost 70 employees.