Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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January 21, 2013

One year later: Truancy on the decline

PRINCETON — Nearly one year after the Mercer County School system and local judges partnered together to combat truancy, officials said they are seeing a large increase in school attendance.

The program began in January of last year as a partnership between the local school system, judicial system and the Department of Health and Human Resources to reduce school truancy rates. Recently, 80 new offenders were added to the truancy program bringing the total number of students between sixth and 12th grade in the program to 193.

Since the program began, Circuit Court Chief Judge Omar Aboulhosn said truancy among students between sixth to 12th grade in the program has fallen by 85 percent and the truancy rates of kindergarten through fifth-grade students in the program has fallen by 86 percent.

“In general, the statistics seem to have been proven true,” Aboulhosn said. “We have had about an 80-percent reduction for children in the truancy program. Kids who come into the program were missing in excess of five days a month in a month where there were only 20 or 22 school days. The program seems to be working. I think school administrators will tell you they are seeing a decline in the number of students missing class or coming in late.”

In addition to reducing truancy rates, Aboulhosn said the program is also helping students solve deeper issues they may be facing.

“We see truancy is often related to mental health issues, family dynamics, drugs and we are finding out these issues are all components of truancy,” Aboulhosn said. “These are really difficult cases. They take up a whole lot of time in dealing with these cases for us, probation officers. We are dealing with a lifetime of issues in these cases and trying to resolve them. A lifetime of family problems, drug abuse and mental health problems are culminating in this one case. It takes a lot of time and energy, but ultimately we think it’s worth it.”

Aboulhosn said he, Saddler and probation officers have to get tough to get their message across in some instances.

“Being on probation is not a cake walk,” he said. “Their Facebook accounts are monitored. They lose some privacy and independence. They have curfews. I have taken game systems from kids, taken cell phones from kids because those were problems on probation for the kids. We have sent 10 to 15 percent of the kids to residential placement to get their education and services they need. Hopefully, being under the influence of probation officers will help these kids. Having these officers supervise them and be on top of them motivates these kids to go to school. There is a lot you have to fix in a short period of time.”

Kellan Sarles, public information specialist with the Mercer County School system, said principals, counselors and teachers are also seeing success with the program.

“I know in many cases our principals and counselors have seen a lot of improvement,” Sarles said. “Our teachers are all on board with this program. Teachers have to put in some extra time to make sure their attendance records are correct and updated. They are taking time to talk with probation officers and make sure these students are showing up for class.”

Sarles said a wide network of teachers, school officials, judges and probation officers are working together to make the program a success.

“The program is working thanks to our attendance directors Russell Lippencott and Ruth Ann Hines, and Judges Omar Aboulhosn and William Saddler,” Sarles said. “It has really been a crusade for them to try and circumvent these same students from appearing in the courtroom as an adult. It really is an awakening to walk through the halls of the courthouse and see these children and parents sitting in the halls. It is a reminder that school attendance is the law.”

Aboulhosn said the ultimate goal is to give local students the best future possible.

“The goal is for the them to get their high school diploma or GED diploma,” he said. “We want them all to graduate high school. Some of these kids are about to age out of high school, so we encourage them to get their GED. We have had a lot of success stories where kids have stayed in school, gotten their diploma and said thank you to us for keeping them in school. We hope we can make an impact. That impact may be 10 years down the road, but we want to see an impact to reduce the jail population by keeping these kids in school.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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