Truancy boards will put teens in school, not jail

Melissa Amaya
Melissa Amaya Courtesy photo

In 1993, 13 year-old Rebecca Hedman ran away and soon after was found murdered in Spokane.  

After this devastating incident, the Washington State Legislature passed a bill intended to prevent truancy and keep children in school. The Becca Bill gave juvenile courts the power to detain teenagers who had not been convicted of a crime, yet had missed numerous days of school.  

While the Becca Bill was a well-intentioned response to this tragedy, it has only led to high incarceration rates among our state’s truant children.

Fortunately, though, we now have a better solution to help keep teenagers in school: community truancy boards.

As readers of The News Tribune know (story 7/13/2015), Washington state has the highest rate of truancy in the nation. Washington accounts for more than one-third of our nation’s under-16-year-old population jailed for missing school.

These jailed children have no access to education, which only increases their absences from school. Often when truant children are jailed, those running the jail do not encourage them to continue their education.       

Concern over the large number of juveniles in jail resulted in a bill passed by the Legislature this year requiring all school districts and juvenile courts to create community truancy boards.

They are proving to be a more-effective solution to truancy than the Becca Bill.  

These boards, which must be up and running by the 2017-18 school year, will consist of a mix of community volunteers such as doctors, lawyers, business owners, stay-at-home parents, counselors, school district personnel and a representative from the juvenile court.  

Boards will meet with truant students and their families to establish a plan for getting them back in the classroom. These boards essentially tackle fixable problems that need school guidance, thus keeping students out of the judicial system.  

For the larger problems that keep children out of school —like domestic violence or drug abuse within the family — the boards refer these children to domestic violence shelters or family support centers.  

We know from experience elsewhere that these boards keep truant children out of the courtroom and return them to the classroom.  

During the 2014-15 school year, Spokane County’s boards resolved 81 percent of truancy cases by successfully returning teenagers to their school, while only 19 percent of the cases went on to court.  

A former commissioner at Remann Hall here in Tacoma, Craig Adams, has seen hundreds of truant children come through his courtroom. He too has come to believe that an effective approach to truancy is to come up with practical solutions that trigger youth’s eagerness to learn.  

"Not every student is the same," he explained. "We must find and use creative solutions —like Community Truancy Boards — to get kids in school so that we can engage all students." Adams believes that jailing youth who don’t attend school is not the solution to a very large statewide problem.

The Becca Bill was intended to solve the problem of children skipping school, yet it needs some reform. Legislators must ask themselves whether young truant non-offenders should continue to be jailed when the potential costs to them and the public are so high.

Community truancy boards are a more effective way to address truancy and return youth to schools, before they take a turn down the wrong path, as happened with Rebecca Hedman.

Melissa Amaya is a senior majoring in Law and Policy at the University of Washington Tacoma. She will graduate in December and plans on applying to law school.