Habitual truancy is a major problem in school districts across the country, and across the state. Truancy not only impacts the future of the students involved, it also places a burden on families, schools and communities.
In Kentucky, Truancy Diversion Programs (TDP) were developed by the Administrative Office of the Courts. Grayson County was a pilot program in 2005; Meade County joined the following year, with both offering diversion for middle and high school students. Today the program is operated in 200 schools and 60 counties throughout the state.
The success of the Grayson and Meade programs recently put them in the national spotlight when the teams were invited to speak during the 19th National Symposium on Juvenile Services in Louisville. “We’re really excited to have been selected,” said District Judge Shan Embry, who presides over both counties.
Local TDP review teams are typically comprised of judges, school personnel and Court Designated Workers (CDW). In addition to Judge Embry, Grayson County is represented by Director of Pupil Personnel, Sonny Prunty and CDW, Lori Majors. In Meade County the DPP is Jason Sutton, and Stephanie Roby serves as CDW.
Administrative Courts Officer Crystal Bohlander works with both groups, and says that while truancy certainly impacts students in both the short and long term, it also has significant implications for the community in terms of finances and workforce development.
Students with excessive unexcused absences are at risk for eventual referral to Family or District Court for truancy charges. Reasons for truancy can be as simple as not having an alarm clock for morning wakeup. It could be a lack of school supplies. “Kids are embarrassed that they don’t have those things,” said Embry. Sometimes it’s just a lack of communication or “spirited teen behavior”.
Since each case is unique, the diversion team works with students and their families one-on-one to get to the heart of their truancy; developing individual plans to address their attendance issues, and to help keep students from reaching the court system in the first place. Through the TDP students are offered two separate opportunities to improve their attendance, as well as meet academic and disciplinary goals.
Meade County DPP Jason Sutton points out that sometimes parents just don’t know how to help their children. This program supports them and makes us an “ally through diversion”.
Grayson County DPP Prunty refuses to take “no” for an answer when it comes to school attendance, making himself “on call” to families for transportation issues or any other obstacle that might keep them out of the classroom. “I give them my number and tell them to call. I’d rather have them there part of day than miss whole day”.
There are success stories across the board in both counties, some of them emotional. Truant students, who successfully completed diversion, graduated, then furthered their education or entered the workforce, thanks to their diplomas.
Resolving issues before they can even reach the diversion or court phase is another major gauge of success, according to Grayson County CDW, Lori Majors. Last year, the combined two-county total of pre-complaints was 314, yet only 21 of those ended up as actual complaints.
Embry praises not only her team, but local Family Resource Centers, which she describes as “instrumental in helping us to be able to provide families with the things that they’re missing”.
She says the main reason the Grayson and Meade programs have been so successful “is because we’ve got such good, hardworking people out there helping kids graduate so they can be job-ready. These guys really go to the “nth” degree”