For a long time, teens regularly skipping school in Anoka County faced a heavy hammer: the threat of short-term foster care, usually in a group home.

Chronic truants could spend a night or two in the custody of the county.

That kept bodies at desks, but it didn’t always address underlying reasons why kids resisted school.

A law change took away the hammer. Counties no longer can use short-term foster care as a consequence for chronic truancy.

This fall, Anoka-Hennepin and Centennial school officials, Anoka County juvenile prosecutors and corrections staff are shifting to a more social services-oriented model to keep middle-school kids in class and engaged.

It’s less punitive and more about solving root problems. The list can include homelessness, academic struggles, social and mental health problems, family crises or chemical addiction.

The strategy is to involve school social workers, counselors and teachers early to address chronic truancy.

“We’ve changed the model from stick to more carrot,” said Michael Chmiel, supervisor of juvenile division in the Anoka County attorney’s office. “It’s a fundamental philosophical change. How can we help you get more reinvested in school? What happened in your life that started you skipping school?”

Truancy is defined by Minnesota statute as seven or more full or partial days of unexcused absences a year.

Last year, Anoka County schools referred 480 students to county prosecutors for suspected truancy, according to county corrections statistics. About half of them were students in sixth to eighth grades. Prosecutors reviewed cases, sending some to diversion programs. They filed 212 petitions for habitual truancy with the courts. They are technically child welfare cases.

No one is sure how the new social services model will play out, but Anoka County corrections staff admit the old model had some flaws.

“In all fairness, where we think we fell a little short is we did a great job making sure the kids were in the building, but I don’t know if we achieved a high level of academic buy-in,” said Rick Sells, Anoka County Corrections court services manager.

“Our department is engaged in doing something with the kids to encourage attendance, to encourage school participation and to stop the problem and propel these people toward graduation,” said Dylan Warkentin, director of the county Corrections Department.

County and school stakeholders spent two years developing the new strategy, which will home in on chronic, repeat truants. At the middle-school level, that’s about 20 to 25 students a year.

“When a student starts to not attend school, there is usually a story behind it. The story often involves some family issue. We are really looking at it on a case-by-case basis. That is the difference from before, when there were some standard practices,” said Jinger Gustafson, Anoka-Hennepin’s associate superintendent for middle school.

Gustafson gave some examples of how the district is intervening early:

If academic struggles are the reason a student is skipping, a team of teachers will meet with the student and family to brainstorm some success strategies. If social or emotional struggles are at the heart of the problem, the district now can refer students to in-school counseling services.

Gustafson stressed that this program is for the small number of students struggling with attendance. Overall attendance of the district’s 8,600 middle-school students is good, she said.

Approximately 89 percent of its middle-schoolers attend school 90 percent of the time or more, she said.

“Our kids want to be in school,” Gustafson said.