Attorneys attacking truancy in Washington County

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 11, 2013 - 5:51 PM

Wayward students and their parents are told that skipping school is illegal and brings serious lifetime consequences.

The 18 students summoned to a meeting with Washington County prosecutors hadn’t yet heeded warnings about truancy, but they’re about to hear an earful.

Truancy isn’t a joke. If you don’t believe it’s serious business, consider this:

More often than not, habitual truancy leads to criminal behavior and eventually prison. Go to school. It’s the law, kids. Then we won’t see you and your parents in court.

Standing before them is Susan Harris, laying down the law to a roomful of boys and girls. Most try to avoid eye contact. A few watch her warily. Some sit with heads bowed. Two girls play with their hair. A boy slumps back in his chair, trying to look cool and disinterested as he stares at the ceiling.

“I just try to scare them a little with my presence,” said Harris, the attorney designated to wrangle truancy problems in County Attorney Pete Orput’s office.

“I come dressed as I go to court, in a suit. I want them to understand how serious this is. We figure that’s our chance to really send a strong message that this behavior is a violation of law.”

Truancy in Washington County remains about where it’s been for years, although reasons vary. A small percentage of students miss school, sometimes for weeks at a time, despite a state law requiring attendance.

“Truancy is a symptom of much greater problems,” Harris said. Reasons could involve bullying, family problems, even marijuana use. Sometimes a child is fighting depression or suffers from untreated attention-deficit disorder. In some cases truancy is traced to parents who have problems of their own.

Truancy intervention isn’t new in Washington County. Orput’s predecessor, Doug Johnson, had a similar program in place. What’s different now is that prosecutors handle truancy cases for kids ages 12 to 17½ through a program known as Attendance Intervention Meeting. The county’s Community Services office previously managed those cases.

Diversion programs for younger students remain with Community Services in the child protection division. The supervisor of that effort, John Nalenzy, said truancy rates have been consistent over the years, with about 90 percent of students graduating from high school in Washington County.

“I think we’ve been able to maintain a relatively good intervention for families and get kids back to attending school,” Nalenzy said.

The county gets involved in truancy after schools report a string of unexcused absences. Intervention starts in the schools, where administrators call parents for a meeting. If truancy continues after that, a series of progressive disciplines follow. In the last resort, Harris files a truancy petition in court, which means parents and student will stand before a judge who decides the next course of action. Truancy cases happen in open court, which means anybody can witness them.

Last year, Harris filed 69 such petitions. She’s nearing 30 so far this year.

Judges will order parents to take actions such as drive their children to school and take away their video games. A judge might rescind a driver’s license or order chemical dependency treatment for parents or their children.

Family dynamics, Harris said, often complicate the outcome of cases. Some parents see their role as being a friend to their kids rather than a mentor. More kids than ever complain of sleep deprivation, sometimes staying awake all night in their bedrooms playing with electronic devices and then falling asleep when it’s time for school.

“These are very deep-rooted human nature issues that aren’t fixed with a pill or a visit to a therapist,” Harris said.

In the interventions, Harris and Orput explain that for most kids, habitual truancy is a gateway to crime. Two-thirds of the nation’s state prison inmates are high school dropouts. Most boys arrested while truants test positive for drug use. In Minneapolis, daytime crime dropped 68 percent after police began citing truants.

As Harris talked with students in one room, their parents heard from Tony Zdroik, chief of the juvenile division of Orput’s office, in another. Zdroik told parents they’re legally responsible for getting their kids to school. If they don’t, he said, they’ll come under court jurisdiction if a truancy petition is filed.

“A truancy petition is like being charged with a crime, it’s like being sued by somebody,” Zdroik said, appealing to parents to take control of their children’s destinies before it’s too late.

Truancy is costly in other ways, too, and that point was made clear to both students and parents in last week’s meeting.

For habitual truants, it’s easier to drop out of school than to catch up. Seventy percent of all jobs in Minnesota will require more than a high school diploma this year.

High school graduates earn at least $700 a month more than dropouts. Businesses pay more to train uneducated workers. Taxpayers must pay law enforcement and welfare costs.

As the wayward students sit before her, Harris tells them to establish good work habits in their teenage years if they want to head off problems later.

At the end of last week’s intervention, she asked each student to name the high school where they expect to graduate. As they did, she presented each of them with a sample diploma in their school’s colors. One boy discarded his diploma on the table as the students filed from the room.

“These kids can’t make it without a high school diploma,” Orput said.

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