Judges orders keep kids in school

High school students who choose to ditch class could end up side-by-side with their parents in front of Columbia County Circuit Judge Ted Grove
by: Rick Swart, Jackson Bennett (center) and his mother, Mary Bennett, sit attentively in truancy court before Judge Ted Grove. Bennett, 17, was cited into court for skipping 40 days of school. Truancy court is proving an effective tool in reducing unexcused absences at St. Helens, according to Grove.

After a couple of confrontations with some of his teachers and classmates at St. Helens High School, 17-year-old Jackson Bennett decided to follow the path of least resistance.

He decided to stay home.

… and lay on the couch.

… and watch TV.

… and play video games.

His mom, Mary Bennett, had no idea her son was skipping school because she was gone all day to attend nursing classes.

It wasn't until Scott Ryon, a truant officer assigned to St. Helens School District, showed up at their house and cited Jackson and his mom into court that she got the unvarnished truth. By the time the long arm of the law caught up with him, Jackson had amassed 40 unexcused absences.

'We don't like them to miss more than 15,' said Ryon, a former police officer who is now employed by the Northwest Regional Education Services District. Ryon talks to teachers and monitors attendance records and, when necessary, makes contact with the offenders.

The truant officer got the Bennetts' attention when he slapped them with a court date and scheduled bail of $150.

'That's a lot of money when you only have one income,' Mary Bennett said.

That's precisely the reaction Judge Ted Grove is looking for when he presides over Columbia County Truancy Court.

'I really don't want to take money away from modest-means families, but that is an outcome we take when we don't get an adequate response,' said Grove. The reality is Grove rarely imposes fines because in the vast majority of cases kids straighten up with a little nudge from the judge, making fines unnecessary. He estimates that eight out of 10 truancy cases are dismissed, which is what happened in the case of Jackson Bennett, who hasn't missed a day of school since his first appearance in truancy court.

'I'm not liking this but if this is what it takes to get your kid in school, so be it,' said Mary Bennett.

Judge Grove said the Bennetts' situation is fairly typical of the kind of cases he sees in truancy court. The participants are predominantly single-parent working families that are overextended, often working two jobs, and relying on their children to be responsible for attending and staying in school. When those kids go astray by skipping school and are nabbed by the truant officer many, if not most, parents welcome the help when it comes to getting their kids back in school.

'Parents are usually at their wits' end and are happy to have the court intervene,' Grove said, adding, 'I see it as a rebalancing of the power structure.'

Grove said he tries to put pressure on truants by letting them know that by skipping school they are taking bread out of the family's mouth. He also has the authority to place them in detention, although he has only gone to that extreme in one or two cases since truancy court began two years ago.

'I'm very favorably impressed with both the enforcement officers and the whole program,' he said. 'In most cases we're seeing improvement.'

Jackson Bennett wasn't wild about getting hauled into truancy court but felt Judge Grove treated him fairly.

'He was pretty fair considering how many days I missed,' said Bennett. 'I'm cool with it.'