It’s not unusual for a student to take a “skip day” from school. But when those days start adding up, the student is at risk of being a truant — and even ending up in juvenile detention in the worst-case scenario.
To keep kids out of the court system, school districts throughout the state have created special community truancy boards to address chronic absenteeism. A truant meets with the board and agrees on a plan to improve attendance. Only if the student fails to follow through will the case progress to the court system and, possibly, detention.
That’s a key point: Washington already sends more noncriminal kids to juvenile detention than any other state. Truancy boards could be a way to decrease that shameful statistic.
The theory is that a truancy board has a better chance than the courts of finding out why a student is chronically absent and coming up with a solution. That approach seems to be working. In Pierce County, truancy boards helped more than 85 students avoid appearing in court for absenteeism during the 2014-15 school year, according to juvenile court officials.
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The Puyallup School District’s 3-year-old truancy board has found that the reason for truancy can be as simple as the fact that the student doesn’t have an alarm clock to as complicated as why one boy was staying home: His drug addict father would beat his mother after the boy left for school. Both cases were resolved by the Puyallup truancy board.
In Pierce County, only two of 15 school districts have no truancy board: Peninsula School District and the South Sound’s largest, Tacoma.
Peninsula reports such few problems with truancy — defined as seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a year — that officials there don’t see value in setting up a truancy board. But that’s not the case in the Tacoma schools, which filed 251 truancy petitions against students in the 2014-15 school year, according to The News Tribune’s Melissa Santos.
About 67 percent of those cases ended up with the student in juvenile court — the very scenario truancy boards are designed to prevent.
Tacoma School District has no plan to institute a districtwide truancy board. A spokeswoman said that it hasn’t seen enough research supporting the merit of that approach to truancy, but that the district would be open to trying it at the individual school level.
“That is definitely something under consideration right now,” says Shannon McMinimee, the district’s attorney, who notes that Tacoma schools already do a lot to fight truancy.
She says each school designates a staff person to work with high-absentee students and avoid filing a court petition. And it has hired an administrator — a recently retired Washington State Patrol lieutenant — to review the district’s truancy program and “identify best-practice interventions and a menu of options that may work for our diverse school communities.”
Truancy boards seem to be having at least some success in other districts. Given the number of Tacoma students ending up in the court system, the district should at least try the approach at a few schools with the worst truancy problems and expand it if it proves successful.