Save truant youth before they get to court
Guest columnist Bobbe J. Bridge writes about how important it is to work with at-risk young people who are chronically truant from school. Successfully re-engaging these young people in school is not only good for communities, it can save their lives.
Special to The Times
EARLIER this month, the Washington Supreme Court reversed an appeals court ruling that truant students must be represented by attorneys at the earliest stage of truancy hearings.
Many of us from schools and courts would prefer that truant kids not end up in court in the first place.
Fighting chronic truancy is a complex endeavor. Students remove themselves from school for many reasons, and tactics to re-engage them must vary, too.
It's a fight we literally cannot afford to lose. If Hispanic, African-American and Native American students in the United States graduated high school and college at the same rate as whites by 2020, we would be add $310 billion to our economy, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
Truancy cripples our communities. Chronically truant kids are more likely to become addicted to drugs, experience violence, become pregnant as teens and eventually drop out of school altogether. Dropouts often wind up unemployed or imprisoned — unfulfilled as individuals and unproductive non-taxpayers in society.
This we know: The earlier we work with kids skipping school, the better chance we have for getting them back in the classroom to stay. To that end, courts should be our last resort.
Just as there's no uniform cause for truancy, there's no cookie-cutter solution. Some kids stay home to care for siblings. Others may have problems in their homes, such as mental illness or drug use. Some may suffer those problems themselves. Early interventions that address a student's specific reasons for being absent have the strongest chance of reintegrating them into school or alternate routes to education.
Fortunately, a number of Washington school districts, partnering with juvenile courts and community agencies, are piloting early intervention programs that have yielded promising results. These programs are coordinated by the Center for Children & Youth Justice as part of the MacArthur Foundation's Models for Change juvenile-justice reform initiative.
In Bellevue and Highline school districts, the Youth R.E.A.C.H. program diverts truant students from the court system and connects them with three tiers of interventions, each level more intensive, to address specific students' situations. Early evaluation found that 83 percent of students in the program had no additional contact with the truancy system.
In Spokane County, the West Valley School District has launched a community truancy board unique for its "Check and Connect" case management. With Check and Connect, a school-based truancy specialist follows up with students both to keep them on track and to look at additional problems they may be experiencing in tandem with absenteeism.
Meanwhile, in Benton-Franklin counties, the Fast Forward school re-engagement project is helping young people who have already dropped out find a pathway back into education or alternative-education programs.
Providing an intervention program is less expensive than providing attorneys at early truancy hearings. By frontloading the truancy process with interventions, jurisdictions across the state are cutting court costs and saving taxpayers money.
These interventions are also saving students — students who might later drop out, be unemployed, or involved in the courts in more severe circumstances.
Continuing and replicating these pre-court truancy interventions must be a priority, not only for courts and schools, but for everyone who wants to see Washington thrive.Retired Justice Bobbe J. Bridge is founding president and CEO of the Center for Children & Youth Justice, which is dedicated to reforming our juvenile-justice and child-welfare systems. She served on the Washington Supreme Court from 2000 to 2008. Prior to that, she served as a King County Superior Court judge, including five years with Juvenile Court.
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