Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Greg Jordan

April 4, 2013

Accountability, consequences: Truancy program a positive step for Mercer

— — I had plenty of duties besides teaching when I taught high school English in Henry County, Va. Every week, I had to check in the school buses as they arrived and hand out passes to kids aboard the buses that came in late. My next task was hall duty. I had to watch the students as they fetched their books and socialized right up to the last possible minute before the bell rang.

Next on the list was counting heads. I checked the seating chart and crossed off whoever was missing. Sometimes seeing which students were missing in action was a surprise, but there were also names that didn’t surprise me at all. They were chronically late on the days when they showed up at all. Most of the time, these students just didn’t come to school.

Like many other counties, Henry County was facing difficult economic times. The local economy once had a strong base of furniture factories and textile mills, but many of those job centers had closed. In the past, families didn’t value education very much because getting a job with one of the manufacturers was easy. Dad, mom, an aunt or an uncle would talk to a manager and get a job for a son, daughter, niece or nephew.

Those days were gone. From what I gathered, one parent could stay at home while the other worked, but now both parents had to work. This left their teens unsupervised, and many times the kids decided on their own whether to go to school. Misbehaving kids could get suspended for up to three days, but they didn’t care because a suspension was a vacation to them. They had three days of sleeping late, playing video games and who knows what else.

I knew other students who were clearly having problems at home. One boy who was out of control was being raised by his grandmother. During one conference with her, she advised me “not to irritate him.” One girl was having an abuse situation; I sent her to the school counselors.

I would say one major issue was lack of accountability. The kids could skip school, but they knew that they could make up their work, be disruptive, and be tardy without any real consequences; at least, no consequences they would worry about.

All of these problems I had as a teacher come to mind whenever I do a story about the truancy program in Mercer County. From everything I have seen or heard about this project, it is actually working. Students who were heading for that shadow world waiting for those who don’t graduate are now earning their high school diplomas.

Students in this program have to go before a Mercer County Circuit Court judge. Parents and guardians are not simply arrested; instead, they work with the system to help resolve the issues keeping their children out of school. The Mercer County Board of Education acquired a grant from the state supreme court to pay for a probation officer who focuses on truancy cases. The students are steered to the services they need.

The people operating the program often learn that the students are facing problems such as illness in their families, drug abuse or psychological issues. I tried to watch for problems among my students, but they simply didn’t talk about life at home — at least, not with adults — and often we didn’t find out about these problems until something especially serious happened.

I would have applauded a truancy program at my school. Students who are brought into the system get the help they need, plus they know that the court system is monitoring their behavior. I’m sure my students would have regarded that monitoring as a serious issue; I mean, having to give up a cell phone was a major issue to these kids. Having to explain yourself in front of a judge is a whole level above going to the principal’s office.

One thing I learned during my teaching career was that a teacher can’t do it all; my influence, what little I had, ended when the students left the classroom. I often found parents who were overwhelmed, too. They had to work and couldn’t be at home when their kids returned from school. Suspended students regarded their time out as a vacation. One time when I was on hall duty, I heard a boy remark to a girl, “I just came off a nice three-day suspension.” I doubt he would have been so happy if he had visited a courtroom.

I hope other school systems adopt a program specially designed to handle truancy. Students who drop out of school for excessive truancy are more likely to end up on welfare, enter the illicit drug trade, and get involved in other crimes. By helping them graduate, the truancy program stops these problems before they happen and gives the students a better quality of life.

Now I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if my school had been involved in a truancy program. Maybe I would be on spring break right now instead of writing this column.

Then again, I wouldn’t be able to go to fires or crime scenes. And I don’t have to worry about irritating kids.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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