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No Summer Vacation for Leon's Campaign Against Truancy

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Leon County Schools
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School is out for the summer, so this might seem to be a strange time to talk about students skipping school. But a Capital City coalition of educators, social welfare organizations and law enforcers believes it’s the perfect time to consider the matter of truancy.

There are around 36,000 public school students in Leon County. The district’s Assistant Superintendent of Prevention, Intervention and Equity Services Dr. Kathleen Rogers said not all of them are in class every day.

“We have approximately maybe 2,400 kids that are absent on a given day,” she noted.

Of course, not all of these students are technically “truant.” Rogers explained state law has specific definitions of what constitutes truancy.

“Based on Florida state statute, we have a policy in place so any student that is absent 15 days would be considered a truant. And then we have another rule or measure that if a student has missed 21 days, then they are chronically absent.”

But Rogers was quick to point out the consequences for truant or chronically absent students depend on whether they are in elementary and middle school, or in high school. For grades 1 through 8 for example,

“If you’re not attending in-school and receiving direct instruction, then the consequence for that is that you will more than likely be failing classes. When you move to the high school – secondary level – then there’s more ‘teeth’ if you will. So a student who has four unexcused absences in any given class put themselves at risk of receiving an attendance failure.”

George Creamer, Jr., Juvenile Services Unit Sergeant with the Tallahassee Police Department, sees a direct correlation between truancy and kids in real trouble.

“One of the things that we noticed amongst our higher-end offenders – the juveniles that are involved in crime, mostly property crime, auto thefts/auto burglaries – they’re always home in the daytime and out at night. Daytime they should be in school and nighttime they should be at home. Sort of the reverse. It was pretty much across the board. Every one of our high offenders would be just that,” Creamer asserted.

That is why everyone agreed early intervention is critical when kids start skipping school. Many years ago, there were enforcement agents called “truant officers.” Leon Assistant Superintendent Rogers said such people still exist, although now they’re known as “community liaisons.”

“And once we have been given a heads-up that this student is exhibiting a pattern of non-attendance, then we send them out to try and locate these students and reengage them back into school.”

But it’s not only the school district and police that get involved in truancy. Jason Ishley is the clinical director non-residential counseling for CCYS or Capital City Youth Services. He said his organization’s job is to dig beneath the misbehavior.

“And often times we find that when we get referrals for these students, there’s a lot more going on than just missing school. One of the biggest correlates for truancy is neglect or some kind of abuse or trauma happening at home. So from a clinical perspective we’re trying to address the home environment, family dynamics, mental health issues, unmet basic needs, in a counseling arena, so kids feel more comfortable going back to school.”

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Still, on any given school day, the Leon County School District sees a significant number of unexcused and re-occurring absences amongst its pupil population. Dr. Kathleen Rogers explained these fall into two categories.

“We have students deemed ‘chronically absent’ and those deemed ‘truant.’ Truant kids are at 9% and chronically absent kids are at 5%,” she said.

Rogers added that kids skipping school used to be thought of as a problem involving only the kids, the schools and the parents and every effort is still made to involve the family in the solution.

“That’s one of the first calls that we make; to the parent to find out, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Because often times, truth be told, the parent is not aware.”

But there are cases in which the parent – or lack thereof – is the problem. Jason Ishley’s CCYS is tapped when a chaotic, or even abusive, home situation is suspected as a factor in why the student is skipping school.

“The last thing they really want to do is to go be around peers and teachers and grades become of little concern to them at that point because they don’t feel safe, they don’t have the basic needs, food, shelter, clothing. If they’re missing that, school is just so far in the back of their mind that that’s why they skip a lot of the time. So from a counseling perspective, that’s where we come in to address everything outside the school arena, the home life, mental health and just trying to get them to a place where they want to go back to school and thrive,” he said.

And law enforcement agencies like the Tallahassee Police Department are also trying to be preventive and corrective as well as punitive. Officer Rachelle Denmark’s present job is social media coordinator in the Public Information Office. But she used to be in the Juvenile Services Unit, working directly with kids who’d been referred to the unit because they’d been missing school.

“In this situation, I wasn’t working a case or a crime specifically. I was working with a person. I was tracking a person, not a crime because my primary mission was to keep that person from committing a crime,” she recalled.

And current Juvenile Services Unit Head Sgt. George Creamer, Jr. noted that’s just part of a new community partnership working together on the issue.

“One of the biggest organizations the Juvenile Services Unit is involved with, that we get the most impact from, is the At-Risk Assistance Program or ‘ARAP,’ he said. “And one of the benefits of that is when you sit down at that table, you have everyone that’s involved. You have CCYS, you have Leon County Schools, you have every law enforcement agency, community groups, anyone that you want to reach out to and if there’s someone not at the table, there’s someone at the table who can directly reach out to that person.”

Still, the school district’s Rogers hoped the community at large will be part of the solution as well.

“We’re all in this together. We get a lot of community calls, so I want to continue to encourage our community to call us when you see we have a student aged 6 to 16 who is not engaged and doing some things out there that they shouldn’t.”

Something all coalition members hope the public will keep in mind after the district’s 36,000 students are all supposed to be back in class starting August 13th.

Follow @flanigan_tom

Tom Flanigan has been with WFSU News since 2006, focusing on covering local personalities, issues, and organizations. He began his broadcast career more than 30 years before that and covered news for several radio stations in Florida, Texas, and his home state of Maryland.

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