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On Track with Truancy

Middle school program has greatly reduced absenteeism

by: Photo By Susan Matheny - Truancy Committee members from left, Chris Elliott, Josh Adams, Butch David, Savenia Falquist, and Rachel Barnhurst. Not pictured, Flossie Wolfe. The Truancy Committee combats absenteeism at Jefferson County Middle School.

General Editor
   March 12, 2003 — Reactivated this year, the Truancy program at Jefferson County Middle School has helped 22 students remain in school and improve their attendance.
   Begun four years ago by former JCMS Principal Pat Kelly, the program had lapsed for a while. "Last school year, the board didn't meet a lot. It heard a few cases, but there was no one really overseeing it," said Matthew Birnie, director of the Jefferson County Juvenile Department.
   But this year, new Principal Steve Johnson and Assistant Principal Josh Adams got the program going again at the middle school in October.
   "Instead of saying `You need to come to school' we try and find out why they are not coming," Birnie said, adding, "Lack of attachment to school is one of the biggest risk factors (for delinquency). If you give students the support they need in middle school, it averts delinquency in the future."
   The middle school program includes a Truancy Committee and Truancy Boards in both Madras and Warm Springs. When students are habitually absent the school refers them to County Juvenile Justice Officer Savenia Falquist.
   Every week the Truancy Committee meets at the middle school to talk about problem students, their issues and possible reasons for poor attendance. The committee is made up of Falquist, Adams, school tribal liaison Butch David, Tribal-funded school officer Chris Elliott, Warm Springs counselor Tom Dyer, and Warm Springs Assistant Juvenile Coordinator Flossy Wolfe. The group also works closely with local BestCare Director Heather Crow-Martinez.
   If needed, Adams said, the Truancy Committee can bring in outside counseling or social services to aid students who are experiencing problems. "It's not a punitive thing, we're stepping in and helping students out," Adams said, noting students respond when "someone's checking on them regularly and people are interested in them."
   Truancy Committee members come up with a plan of action to help each student, then Falquist and David meet with the students for their input. Working with the student, they draw up a contract to improve attendance, which includes incentives.
   "The contract lists expectations and rewards," Adams said, noting JCMS received a $5,000 grant from the local HAABLA group, and an additional $2,000 from area businesses, which is used to buy prizes for good attendance. Incentive prizes have included things like CD players, DVD players, sports equipment.
   During the first trimester, JCMS saw a 22 percent increase in attendance from the 13 students the Truancy Committee worked with. And things are continuing to improve.
   "One girl missed 20-plus days the first trimester. She started working with the Truancy Committee and has had near perfect attendance since," Adams said.
   If a student won't sign a contract and continues to skip school, the committee contacts the parents. If working with the parents isn't successful, the child is referred to the Truancy Board.
   For the first time this year, Truancy Boards have been set up in both Warm Springs and Madras, since Tribal laws work differently than state and county laws. The Truancy Boards meet monthly to hear the most difficult cases. Members hear individually from the student and the parents, then write a contract with the family for their child to attend school. The contract may include agreements for parenting classes or counseling.
   "(The Truancy Board) is our last card for the family and enables us to come up with a court-binding document," Falquist said. In Madras courts, parents can be charged with endangering the welfare of a child if the child is not attending school.
   Falquist monitors the contracts. If students improve behavior, go to counseling and follow the contract, they earn incentive awards. If not, she files a petition with the Circuit Court.
   In Warm Springs, Tribal laws are even more stringent, because the student as well as the parents can be charged. "We can file compulsory school attendance petitions against students in Tribal Court. The prosecution can also file criminal charges against the parent for failure to send a child to school," said Tribal Assistant Juvenile Coordinator Flossy Wolfe.
   In both communities, the bottom line if students and parents don't cooperate is that children can be removed from the home. "But we try to do interventions before it reaches that stage," Wolfe said.
   Why kids skip school
   Kids skip school for many reasons, some of which have surprised even Falquist.
   It can be as simple as not having a functioning alarm clock, as was the case with one boy.
   Some children are raised by single parents who work and can't be home in the morning to make sure their kids get up and off to school.
   There are parents who ask older children to skip school to babysit their younger brothers and sisters.
   Other children may avoid school because of harassment from others. Or because they don't fit in and feel awkward.
   But in some cases, truancy is only an symptom of the more serious problems of child abuse and neglect.
   "Truancy is the indicator. Our red flag," Falquist said.
   A student's poor attendance may also be accompanied by problem behaviors such as drinking, cussing out their teachers, cutting themselves, depression and attempted suicide.
   "Kids don't do that stuff just because they don't want to be in school," Falquist said, stressing people have to look at the root causes of truancy and bad behavior.
   She said her heart goes out to children suffering from neglect, or physical, emotional or sexual abuse. "I want to be a voice for them, get services to the home and try to stop the cycle of violence," she said.
   Situations that opened her eyes have included a student who was absent because their parent had a drinking party all night in the home and the student hadn't gotten any sleep.
   One home didn't have a washer or dryer and the child didn't have any clean clothes to wear. And if he went to school in dirty clothes the other students would make fun of him.
   Another home couldn't afford gas for their car so they could get their child to the bus stop.
   School is not going to be a priority for a child worried that there might not be food on the table tonight, Falquist observed.
   One of the Truancy Committee's success stories involved a young man who had four close family members die within a short time period. The student was really struggling in school with attendance and behavior issues when the Truancy Committee stepped in with help. The boy was able to enroll in a 90-day therapy program that included grief counseling, and has subsequently done very well in school.
   Many people get caught up in what Falquist calls the "Blame Game," pointing a finger at the Tribes, the White Man, or Parents as the one to blame when kids have attendance or behavioral problems.
   "But blaming doesn't resolve the cycle. It's still a child without a voice," she said, adding, "People need to get away from looking at things from their own point of reference."
   Monitoring students with such overwhelming problems might sound depressing, but Falquist doesn't view it that way and says her work is fun.
   "I love working with the kids. They're wonderful little people with so much insight and so much to offer. But some have a lot of barriers to go up against," she said.
   "I want to prevent abuse from happening. And make it so the children of our community have a voice, a safe place to be, and the opportunity to grow," Falquist said.