Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

March 31, 2013

Truancy program has impact

By GREG JORDAN
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

PRINCETON — Becoming the family’s primary caregiver kept one Mercer County student out of school. Other students who were chronically truant or tardy faced problems ranging from drug abuse in their households to transportation issues. No matter what the problem, Mercer County’s truancy program has been addressing them.

In 2011, the Mercer County Circuit Court and the Mercer County Board of Education started a new truancy program designed to help chronically truant and tardy students. Approximately 190 students are now in the system, said Terry Hughes, director of attendance for Mercer County Schools.

The program focuses on resolving problems instead of handing out penalties.

“The program’s a great program,” Hughes said. “The thing I like most about this program is that no one gets arrested. In the old one (system) they had to arrest somebody, book and fingerprint them.”

However, authorities would encounter cases such as a grandmother trying to care for a 17-year-old juvenile, Hughes recalled. Now instead of arresting parents or guardians, the system works with them to keep children in school and help them graduate. Prosecutors, the board of education, circuit courts, probation officers, public defenders and teachers work together to make the system work.

“We really appreciate our teachers,” Hughes said. “Teachers file reports every 30 days for these kids and the parents. A lot of parents have bought into this program. We’ve got several students who are going to graduate this semester because of the program.”

In many cases, students are not missing school simply because they don’t want to go to class.

“Sometimes there are home problems. Sometimes there are mental issues. There could be a thousand and one things wrong,” Hughes said. “We try to make the learning process better for them.”

Twenty-six truancy cases were on Mercer County Circuit Judge Omar Aboulhosn’s docket for review on March 26.

“We’ve got a good stream of kids coming into the program,” he said. “The board of education continues to file petitions and we continue to hear the cases. This review was for the last group of 80 some cases a couple of month, back in February.”

There has been a 75 to 80 percent reduction in truancy among the students now in the program, Aboulhosn said.

“Their truancy and their tardiness plummets,” he added.

In 2012, there was a nearly 20 percent reduction in truancy system wide, Aboulhosn said. He credited Hughes and others working in the school and court systems for its success.

The Mercer County Board of Education approved funding for a new probation officer dedicated to truancy cases; the funding came through a grant from the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals.

That officer, Nola Ingram, pointed out a stack of files in her office. In February, about 75 new cases were filed.

“I personally have 41 new cases, so that puts me around about 85, which is good,” Ingram said. “The program is going really well.”

“We offer services, sometimes court ordered, from the DHHR (state Department of Health and Human Resources),” she continued. “Those include parenting, child oriented activities, and psychological evaluations.”

Sometimes, personnel with the probation program discover that the students have problems that have not been addressed for years. Ingram said difficulties that she sees include drug abuse, a parent who has died, and lack of grief counseling.

“One of the biggest steps is to get the child a psychological evaluation to see what other services we can offer,” she said.

In one case, a student had become a primary caregiver who was talking care of a sick parent and several siblings. Another case had a child who had moved to a new home, but did not want to transfer to a new school; as a result, the student was constantly late for class. Other problems are more serious.

“We’ve had kids who are harming themselves and not wanting to come to school because they don’t want people to know,” Ingram said. “Parents are not following up on issues like that.”

“It goes way beyond truancy when you get into what is going on in that child’s life,” Ingram stated.

Once the students begin receiving the services and counseling they need, their schoolwork begins to improve.

“We’ve had kids who have missed several days of school and had Fs and Ds and go to As and Bs because they know somebody is monitoring their behavior and attendance,” Ingram said.

Ingram emphasized again that the program’s goal is to offer assistance to troubled students.

“I tell my parents that I’m here to help them. I’m not just the probation officer — I’m the other parent. Call me. Sometimes the calls start at 6:30 in the morning and sometimes they don’t stop until 10 o’clock that night,” she said. “The schools have been very, very cooperative with us. They’re not resistant to the program. They’ve been very helpful with me and the other probation officers as well.”

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com