As a schoolboy, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman recalls walking home for a doctor's appointment and fearing a truancy officer would pop up from behind a bush.

In his case, Freeman had mom's permission to leave school.

Now, as the county's top prosecutor, he's making sure other students do, too.

Nearly two years ago, he swept the truancy enforcement program into his office. He hired an educator, Tamiko Thomas, to run the program, called be@school.

The aim is to catch kids early, before they get into trouble.

When he took office the first time in the early 1990s, Freeman said 95 percent of the juveniles who committed felonies were truants first. "The best way we could break that cycle is to get that kid in school," Freeman said.

First, he pushed for uniform countywide curfew laws. Now in his second stint as the elected prosecutor, he's begun a more comprehensive truancy program out of his office that also reached into the communities for help from nonprofits.

Paige Young, a social worker in the Osseo School District, said the early involvement from Freeman's office lends weight "for kids that need to be reminded that school is their job right now."

State law requires that children from age 7-18 must attend school every day unless legally excused. Children ages 5 and 6 must also attend if they are enrolled.

"If a kid isn't in school in second or third grade, they're never going to catch up," Freeman said.

For the first couple of absences, a student will receive a letter or call from the school. After six or more unexcused absences, the prosecutor gets involved. Freeman's office sends a letter to the student's home seeking to convene a Parent Group Meeting, usually attended by numerous parents and students to discuss attendance laws.

Of those who participate in the voluntary meetings, 99 percent of the students had no unexcused absences for the following 30 days. Unexcused absences were halved for that group after 90 days, according to data provided by Freeman's office.

Transportation often is the main problem for a student, but a need for shoes or breakfast, or a sick parent or sibling, can also be issues.

"A lot of times it's just solving that one problem," Thomas said. "This is a case where a little information goes a long way."

Freeman used the example of a 13-year-old student who was being dropped off at school by her father, but ended up with enough unexcused absences to merit a conference with a representative from his office. The father's reaction, according to Freeman: "I didn't know she wasn't going to school." The girl had been slipping out the back door, he said.

If unexcused absences continue, then a smaller Student Team Attendance Review meeting is convened with the student and parents.

Schools refer truants to Freeman's office when kids have six or more absences. For example, Minneapolis referred 5,482 students in 2011-12. Richfield referred 257, Hopkins 308, Robbinsdale 624 and Osseo 651.

For the most recent school year, the county received 6,026 referrals to the program; 2,240, or 37 percent, of students or families participated in at least one of the be@school program interventions, according to Freeman's office. Be@school has a budget of $2.5 million for 2013.

Families can also get help from outside the system, which is critical in Young's view. "No one wants to call the school secretary and say, 'Mom has depression and can't get out of bed to get us ready for school,'" Young said. But a family might be able to talk to an outside social worker about such a mental health issue, she said.

Young moved last year to Osseo from a Missouri school district that imposed fines on families when kids were truant. She praised the broad, helpful Hennepin County approach. "Its ability to meet all the different needs of parents and students that aren't coming to school is astounding," Young said.

Former Ramsey County Attorney Susan Gaertner started a similar program there in the mid-1990s that has been praised for its effectiveness. The milestones and notices are similar in both counties. Both have won praise for their effectiveness in University of Minnesota studies.

The counties have the same goal: "We're trying to keep kids out of the juvenile system," said Kate Richtman, director of the Ramsey County juvenile division.

Rochelle Olson • 612-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson