“Look at him, doesn’t he look sharp?”
A seventh-grade boy sits across the table from a half-dozen school officials and a juvenile probation officer, all of whom want to know why he’s missed 17 days of school.
But the first thing they do is compliment him on his tie.
“I can’t get him ready at 7 in the morning, but I can get him ready at 3 in the afternoon,” the boy’s mother says, as the two of them take their seats.
The 13-year-old is appearing before a community truancy board, an intervention for truant students that the Puyallup School District has been running for three years.
The goal of a community truancy board is simple: Find out what is keeping a child from attending school, and help the family address it without making the child appear before a judge or a court commissioner.
To do that, board members — typically a mixture of counselors, school district officials, community volunteers and someone from the juvenile court — meet with a family for 45 minutes to develop a plan to improve a student’s attendance.
If the child follows the plan, he or she will never have to go to court — an experience that some experts say can traumatize kids and inevitably leads to more missed class time.
Avoiding court also means truant students avoid the possibility of going to juvenile detention, a place judges in Washington send noncriminal youths more often than judges in any other state.
Partly for those reasons, community truancy boards are an approach endorsed in state law, as well as recommended by juvenile justice advocacy groups across the country.
Yet while several school districts in Washington — including all but two school districts in Pierce County — are turning to truancy boards to help keep truant students out of the juvenile court system, two of the state’s largest school districts aren’t embracing the practice.
Tacoma Public Schools officials say they want to see more evidence that the approach works, while leaders at Seattle Public Schools say it’s hard to find employees and community members willing to volunteer their time to serve on the boards.
The method has already had a positive effect in Pierce County, juvenile court officials say. More than 85 Pierce County students avoided appearing in court for truancy during the 2014-15 school year after being directed first to a community truancy board, according to the court.
School districts in Spokane and Clark counties also have reported success using the intervention. Their procedures involving community truancy boards are held up as national models by the MacArthur Foundation and the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice, among others.
After seeing the approach work elsewhere, three districts in Thurston County are now starting community truancy boards, too.
“The community truancy board gets everyone there, to find out why a student is truant,” says Liz Coker, a researcher at the University of Washington Tacoma who recently co-authored a report on truancy in Washington state. “Is it because he or she is babysitting a little sister? Is it because of issues with transportation?”
“A judge can’t always do that,” she says.
‘A WARM, SUPPORTIVE ENVIRONMENT’
Washington state law requires school districts to file a truancy petition in juvenile court if a child has seven unexcused absences in a month, or 10 unexcused absences in a year. But school districts have the option of delaying court hearings on those petitions for 90 days or more — known as a “stay” of the petition — to give students and school officials time to work things out before heading to court.
For most students, a stay petition threatening a juvenile court hearing is enough to get them to improve their attendance, says Tara Rodriguez, who supervises the truancy division at Pierce County Juvenile Court. Of the 484 stay petitions Pierce County school districts filed against truant students in the 2014-15 school year, all but 73 of them improved their attendance within 90 days and had the petitions dismissed without going to court.
In some cases, though, districts decide students need the additional help of a community truancy board, which can be convened during the 90 days that a student’s court petition is on hold.
In the 2014-15 school year, 112 Pierce County students with stay petitions were referred to community truancy boards. About 75 percent of those students — 86 students in all — had their petition dismissed without ever having to appear in court.
Only one-quarter of the students sent to truancy boards later had to appear in court after failing to improve their attendance.
Meanwhile, in Tacoma, a district that doesn’t use truancy boards, a much higher percentage of truancy petitions ended up in court that year.
Rodriguez says one reason community truancy boards work is because the experience is less intimidating for students and families than a formal court hearing.
“They walk in, they’re stressed out, they don’t know what’s going to happen,” Rodriguez says. “And it’s immediately a warm, supportive environment.”
In truancy court, by contrast, students face a judge or court commissioner who can order them to attend school and can put them in juvenile detention if they don’t obey.
Washington leads the nation in how often judges jail youths for truancy and other noncriminal offenses. Some believe that early interventions such as community truancy boards can help reverse that trend.
“I think it’s a much better outcome all around,” says state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat who has proposed ending detention as a sanction for truancy.
“You don’t burden the court system with trivial, fixable problems, and you have the opportunity to keep a kid out of that deep end of the pool, and really provide them with some of the interventions that are going to make their life more positive.”
MAKING A DEAL WITH STUDENTS
Sitting around a conference table at the district’s main office, members of Puyallup’s community truancy board learn quickly why the 13-year-old boy is having trouble getting to school, because he comes right out and tells them: He stays up late most nights playing video games and then can’t wake up in the morning.
What takes a little longer to explore is why.
The boy’s mother tells the board that she recently lost her job and is battling “major depression.” She says she and her son are on the brink of homelessness, and would already be on the street without the help of their church.
Forcing her teenage son go to bed takes more energy than she has some days, she says.
The boy, too, is anxious about returning to school — he is behind on his assignments and overwhelmed by how much he doesn’t understand in his classes, he says. After being gone much of the semester, he also worries what his teachers and peers will say to him when he comes back.
For this, the board members have suggestions.
“They’re going to have questions for you. But you know what? All you’ve got to say is, ‘hey, it’s nice to see you, too.’ You don’t owe them any explanation,” says Barb Pope, the school district’s former director of student services.
“Say, ‘It doesn’t matter. I’m here now,’” another board member suggests.
While the board members remind him of the dismal job prospects for someone without a high school diploma, they also emphasize that, as a seventh-grader, he still has plenty of time to change course.
“You’re at the age right now where you can turn this around very easily,” says Koleen McGuire, a school counselor who sits on Puyallup’s board. “Don’t wait until you’re 18 and have no credits.”
The board spends the next half-hour hammering out a plan to address the concerns raised by the boy and his mother. The final contract includes tutoring to help the 13-year-old catch up on his school work, and it arranges for one of his favorite teachers to check in with him every day to see how he’s doing.
A education advocate from the Puget Sound Educational Service District — one of the people who serves on Puyallup’s truancy board — will also follow up with him regularly and help connect his mom with a community counseling service.
For his part, the boy must shut off his video games by 8 p.m. so he can get to sleep and wake up by 6:40 a.m. Time is established for homework, as well as chores.
There’s also a little incentive thrown in for the 13-year-old, who says he plays baseball and likes the Yankees: If he goes to school every day for two weeks, the school district will give him a Yankees jersey.
“Deal?” Pope asks him, smiling.
“Deal,” the boy says.
TACKLING PROBLEMS BIG AND SMALL
Pope, who led the effort to start a truancy board in Puyallup three years ago, says the district isn’t shy about using “carrots and prizes” to help entice kids to come to class. It could be stickers, snacks or hair barrettes, depending on what motivates each child, she says.
“We actually have a bag of Doritos waiting for a kid at Stahl Junior High School right now, every day,” Pope says before the start of truancy board proceedings one afternoon in November. “If that’s what we have to do to kick them into gear, then we’re not ashamed to do that.”
Once students start going to school regularly, “they’ve established good habits that can exist without Doritos,” she says.
Learning about kids’ likes, dislikes and motivations also reveals what’s going on in their lives that keeps them from coming to school, she says.
“What we learn when these kids come to community truancy boards is that the issue is not attendance. That’s the symptom,” Pope says. “There’s always another deeper issue.”
Once, Puyallup board members learned that the reason a child wasn’t coming to school was that his father had a drug addiction and would beat his mother when the child left for the day, Pope recalls. In that case, the board helped place the child and his mother at a domestic violence shelter and family support center.
For other kids, their problems can be solved with something as easy as an alarm clock.
Mark Beddes, the assistant principal at Columbia Junior High in the Fife School District, says he routinely goes to Goodwill and picks up as many alarm clocks as he can find.
Beddes, who helped establish Fife’s community truancy board, says that was all one fifth-grade girl needed when she came before the board last year. The girl’s mother went to work early in the morning, making it hard for the girl to wake up on time. So Beddes gave her an alarm clock and helped her set it up.
Other students who have medical issues may need a customized educational plan, known as a 504 plan, in place for when they get sick, Beddes says. For one girl last year, that plan — plus a stockpile of peppermint tea in the nurse’s office — enabled her to participate in class and resolve attendance concerns with the school, he says.
“I always ask the question, ‘what do they do at home when they’re sick?’ ” Beddes says. “A mom said, ‘Peppermint tea.’ ”
“It was just a common sense thing — can we solve this problem for you, can we fix this up?”
SEATTLE CITES COST CONCERNS
Some funding for the boards comes from the state, albeit indirectly.
For every truancy petition they file, school districts can apply for a state reimbursement of about $130. Districts can apply for that money even if they opt to “stay” the petition so it doesn’t go straight to court.
In Puyallup, that reimbursement money helps pay for two school counselors to sit on the truancy boards, along with the advocate from the Puget Sound ESD to follow up with the students, Pope says. Other school officials show up to the boards on a volunteer basis, she says.
It’s a model that some districts can support, but others find more difficult. Jessie Jimenez, truancy representative for Seattle Public Schools, says that while Seattle schools used to operate community truancy board in the late 1990s, they stopped after two years for a variety of reasons.
Finding volunteers to staff the boards was one issue, he says. Financing was another.
“The lack of money for dedicated staff and volunteers with enough skills in counseling … was a big issue,” Jimenez says.
Even with the state’s reimbursement for filing truancy petitions, “it doesn’t even amount to what we need to continue these boards,” he says.
Bobbe Bridge, a former state Supreme Court justice who now leads the Center for Children and Youth Justice in Seattle, says that while Seattle provides group workshops for truant students and their families, those workshops don’t provide the same kind of focused attention as a community truancy board.
“It’s not as intense,” Bridge says. “It’s not necessarily as focused and as personal a touch.”
A task force convened by Bridge and others recently recommended that school districts throughout the state work to provide community truancy boards as a pre-court intervention. She says it would be nice if Seattle, the state’s largest school district, would give it another shot.
“It is a better practice,” Bridge says. “I think anybody could benefit from at least trying it out.”
TACOMA NOT SURE ABOUT EFFICACY
In Pierce County, all but two of the county’s 15 school districts are either using community truancy boards already or are working to offer them this year.
Tacoma Public Schools, the county’s largest school district, isn’t among them.
The other district in Pierce County that isn’t doing truancy boards is the Peninsula School District, which serves about 8,000 students in and around Gig Harbor and the Key Peninsula. A spokeswoman for the district says Peninsula processes so few truancy petitions annually that setting up a board wouldn’t be worthwhile.
According to the district, five Peninsula students went to court for truancy cases in the 2014-15 school year, while an additional 12 students had stay petitions that were dismissed without going to court.
Meanwhile, Tacoma — the state’s third-largest school district — filed 251 truancy petitions against students that same school year. About 67 percent of those cases progressed to court hearings, judging by the number of petitions the district filed motions to stay.
Tacoma school officials say they’re doing plenty to combat truancy, but most of it is happening at the school level, rather than with a board consisting of other district officials or volunteers.
Shannon McMinimee, the attorney for the school district, says building-based administrators are the ones who know students best, and are in the best position to help solve students’ attendance issues. At each Tacoma school, a designated staff person works with students to address truancy problems long before the district ever files a court petition, she says.
While district officials have hired a new administrator this year to review and coordinate the district’s strategies for combating truancy, McMinimee says they aren’t planning to start a truancy board at this time.
That’s partly because school officials in Tacoma aren’t convinced that community truancy boards work as well as others say — especially when compared to the interventions Tacoma schools already offer, McMinimee says.
She says most of the truancy board data she sees comes from Spokane County, and “they haven’t been doing it a terribly long time.”
“There’s not a lot of existing data on its efficacy,” McMinimee says. “Everything that gets talked about at conferences is very anecdotal.”
A LOOK AT THE NUMBERS
Still, the numbers from the West Valley School District in Spokane County are impressive. While the district has operated a community truancy board for more than 15 years, the board’s effectiveness improved after 2007, when the district hired a truancy specialist to follow up with students and check on their progress.
In 2010, more than 90 percent of truancy cases in the West Valley School District were resolved at the school district level and never progressed to a court hearing. Comparatively, in 1996, nearly 70 percent of the district’s truancy cases ended up in court.
Spokane County court officials say they also have had success expanding their truancy board program to other districts, including Spokane Public Schools, the second-largest school district in the state. About 1,800 truancy petitions were filed in Spokane County in the 2014-15 school year, but fewer than 400 of those cases went to court, according to data provided by court officials.
Similarly low rates of court appearances for truancy are reported in Clark County, where truancy boards are one of several interventions offered to students who are skipping school.
Spokane officials say they think community truancy boards work better than other school-level interventions partly because of the court’s involvement.
The threat of having to go to court, or receiving a letter from the juvenile court in the mail, can get families and students to sit down talk about attendance when a school’s attempts have failed, says Bonnie Bush, the juvenile court administrator in Spokane County.
“Just this thought that you might have to attend court if you go to the truancy board and aren’t successful there, that’s the extra support,” Bush says. “I really think if some families didn’t have that push from the court, it would be easy to blow them off.”
‘PREFERRED,’ BUT UNFUNDED
Last year, a statewide survey found that only 51 of the state’s 295 school districts operated community truancy boards, though some districts that have started boards recently aren’t included in that count.
That’s despite the Legislature passing a law in 2009 that called community truancy boards “the preferred means of intervention” for truancy.
“The Legislature intends to encourage and support the development and expansion of community truancy boards and other diversion programs, which are effective in promoting school attendance and preventing the need for more intrusive intervention by the court,” the law says.
McMinimee says that it’s not uncommon for state lawmakers to make those kinds of non-binding policy recommendations, but never provide the money to pay for them.
“There are many things the Legislature passes into law and doesn’t fund,” McMinimee says. “That would be great for them to fund if they thought it was the appropriate way to handle things.”
Initially, Spokane County officials had grant money that helped them study the effectiveness of West Valley’s truancy board, as well as retain a coordinator who could follow up with students about their progress.
Today, however, they say that money has run out, and they’re running on the same type of limited budget as every other juvenile court in the state.
“You just have to allocate your resources where you feel it’s in the best interest of the kids,” Bush says. “We all have been dealing with budget reductions.”
“I can tell you that we truly believe in it in Spokane, and they’re believing in it in other counties,” she says.
FUNDING ON THE HORIZON?
Some lawmakers, including Darneille, say they would like to see the Legislature allocate more money for community truancy boards. A proposal this year from state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, aims to set up grant funding through the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Orwall says the money would help school districts work with community service providers to offer counseling and other interventions, and could make it easier for more districts to start community truancy boards.
The state grants would also help train people to serve on the boards, she says.
“We’re hoping that will provide a big incentive for other school districts to move in the direction of what we think is a very promising practice,” Orwall says.
Orwall’s proposal, House Bill 2449, had a hearing before a legislative committee Tuesday. As of last week, budget analysts had yet to determine what the proposal would cost, or where the state would come up with the money.
MORE BOARDS IN MORE PLACES
Locally, Pierce County juvenile court officials point to the experience of other school districts that border Tacoma as compelling evidence that community truancy boards are working. Most of those school districts started their community truancy boards in the past 18 months.
School districts in other counties, including some in Thurston County, also are jumping on board.
The Olympia School District started operating a truancy board on a trial basis last year, and officials in the Tenino School District hope to hold their first community truancy board starting in February.
Yelm Community Schools, which straddles the Pierce and Thurston County line, is establishing a truancy board as well, says Nancy Ivory, a juvenile probation counselor with the Thurston County Juvenile Court.
Ivory says the court is working to get even more school districts in Thurston County to participate.
“We think that’s the way to go,” Ivory says. “That’s the way I think all the counties are going to fall into line eventually, so we want to get ahead of it.”
A PROGRESS REPORT
The 13-year-old boy in Puyallup immediately began to turn around his attendance after he met with the community truancy board in November.
While he’s had some attendance lapses more recently, “it has definitely been an improvement” compared to before the board meeting, when the boy’s attendance was so spotty that district officials had to temporarily rescind his enrollment, says Char Krause, Puyallup’s new director of student services.
Back then, “he wasn’t coming at all,” says Krause, who recently took over for Pope after she retired.
Krause says the education advocate from the Puget Sound ESD will continue to work with the child and his mother to help get his truancy petition dismissed. So will other school district officials, she says.
The boy’s truancy petition is still within the 90-day window where it has been stayed, meaning he has more time to improve his attendance, Krause says.
“That’s the bright side of this,” she says. “Even for kids that don’t respond as quickly as we want them to, we have a plan now where we can follow up with them.”
“They’re not invisible any more.”
Pope, the district’s former student services director, concedes that the district’s truancy board program doesn’t solve the problems of every student. She estimates that about half of the students who go through the process in Puyallup never have to go before a court commissioner, but the other half might need the court’s intervention.
That’s still a remarkable success rate, she says.
“I figure every kid we keep out of the court system means it works,” Pope says.