Author: Laura J. Leonard, Communications Specialist
Illness, family vacation and emergencies may keep children out of school from time to time, and are a common occurrence in North Carolina classrooms. Excessive, repeated and unexcused school absences – known as truancy – negatively affect a child’s ability to learn, grow and eventually graduate, which may lead to unemployment and other negative outcomes as an adult.
Truancy brings legal impacts to both parents and children. For parents, it is a misdemeanor with impacts varying based on their past criminal history. Meanwhile, children can be charged as undisciplined in the juvenile justice system.
North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice Section is working with other state and local partners to address school attendance problems before they lead parents and children to court. The collaborative effort is called truancy court. In District 27 (Cleveland, Gaston and Lincoln counties), the initiative began in Cleveland County in 2007. It was reproduced in Gaston County in 2012, followed by Lincoln County in 2013.
“The mission of truancy court is to improve student attendance in a nurturing manner that builds relationships between students, families, schools and the community. [It] offers parents and students the opportunity to examine the root causes of attendance problems and resolve the issues that create barriers to regular school attendance.” (Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools website)
North Carolina law says children ages seven to 16 must attend school. More than 10 unexcused absences alert the school principal who then meets with the child’s parents. If the parent refuses to make an effort to get the child back into the classroom, school social workers identify such situations as truancy cases.
Often, a school will have the parent charged for failure to comply with the school attendance while approving a truancy petition for the student. This means that while it may take a parent one to three years for their case to be resolved, the student will have been placed on a diversion contract that is completed in six months. Because they are not processed together, many times this approach does not get the child back in school.
Truancy courts don’t work like regular courts. You aren’t summoned to the courthouse nor are provided a lawyer, fined or put on probation.
Truancy courts focus on processing the student’s and parent’s cases at the same time with the goal of reaching a joint solution that results in the child returning – on a regular basis – to school.
“The ultimate goal of truancy court is to have youth attend school and get them re-engaged in the joy of obtaining an education,” said Carol McManus, District 27 court counselor. “Truancy court prosecutes parent and juvenile in the same court room at the same time. It assures that each party’s case is heard by the same judge and all agencies involved with the case are present at the same.”
It starts with a team whose primary concerns are getting to the root of the problem, fixing it and getting the child back in school. Sometimes, the child isn’t attending school because he/she doesn’t have clean clothes; other times, it is because he/she is homeless. Those problems cannot be solved with a fine and diversion contract.
Truancy court is a community-based approach that begins with a truancy team. The truancy court initiative in Cleveland, Gaston and Lincoln counties is comprised of school administrators, social service workers, court counselors, district attorneys and judges who work to identify the problem(s) behind lack of attendance and identify ways to resolve them.
“In the past 10 years, the initiative has increased the number of cases that have been resolved through truancy mediation and not ended up in court,” said McManus. “The need for additional services to the juvenile and parent is identified on the front end so that the juvenile doesn’t proceed deeper into the criminal justice system. Younger juveniles are being identified and interventions put in place to reduce the development of the habit of not attending school; thereby helping them return to school in a very supportive environment.”
In Gaston County, that team works with the parent or legal guardian to resolve school attendance issues. Families are offered mediation opportunities or provided with community resources to prevent it escalating to traditional court. The social workers conduct home visits to engage family back into school.
In one instance, the process discovered a family of three children in Gaston County whom had not been in school for nearly three years. School social workers got involved and brought the family to truancy court, where Juvenile Justice sought to help. The result … the family has found permanent housing and the three children have pulled their grades up to the point they can all be promoted to the next grade.
“Truancy court gives the child a variety of intervention options that are specific to that child’s situation,” said Chuck Mallonee, western area administrator for Juvenile Justice Court Services. “It works to strengthen families, increase academic performance and ensure stability in the home.”