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Truancy can lead to a lifetime of problems

Judges discuss importance of keeping children in school during forum

November 4, 2011
By Carra Higgins - Staff Writer ( , The Inter-Mountain

Truancy isn't just an issue for a child, parents and the school system. It's a problem that's increasing expediently and can have serious consequences for communities, states and the nation.

Randolph County's Courtroom on Thursday was filled with educators, attorneys, elected officials and others from Randolph, Tucker and Pendleton counties to hear about the importance of community involvement to ensure higher graduation rates.

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis, who has been appointed to coordinate and expand judicial truancy programs, has been traveling the state with Barbour/Taylor County Circuit Court Judge Alan Moats explaining negative effects of dropout and truancy.

Article Photos

The Inter-Mountain photo by Carra Higgins
West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis greets Randolph County Schools Attendance Director Lynn Proudfoot during Thursday’s forum on truancy held at the Randolph County Courthouse.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has determined that education is a fundamental right granted by the state Constitution. When children are not in school and learning, they are having a right taken from them, Moats said.

Moats told the crowd that truancy goes far beyond a child skipping school one day to go somewhere with friends. Truancy is when children are missing school habitually for various reasons.

Most people consider five absences each school year as reasonable. Last year, the legislature created legislation that enables the court system to get involved after a student has five unexcused absences within a year. However, excused absences, many of which are issued by doctors, can result in students missing as many as 50 days in one year, Moats told those in attendance. By the time a student reaches his or her fifth unexcused absence and goes before a judge, he or she have missed two or three months of school.

Fact Box

Factors contributing to truancy from the National Center for School Engagement

School factors

- Lack of effective and consistently applied attendance policies

- Poor record-keeping, making truancy difficult to spot

- Push-out policies, for example, suspension as punishment for truancy and automatic Fs for students with poor attendance

- Parents/guardians not notified of absences

- Teacher characteristics, such as lack of respect for students and neglect of diverse student needs

- Unwelcoming atmosphere, for example, an unattractive facility or one with chronic maintenance problems

- Unsafe environment, for example, a school with ineffective discipline policies where bullying is tolerated

- Inadequate identification of special education needs, leading some students to feel overwhelmed and frustrated with their inability to succeed.

Home and community factors

- Family health or financial concerns that pressure the student to care for family members or work during school hours

- Child is a victim of abuse or neglect

- Pressures arising from teen pregnancy or parenting

- Safety issues, such as violence near home or between school and home

- Parental alcoholism or drug abuse

- Negative role models, such as peers who are truant or delinquent

- Parents/guardians who do not value education and are complicit in student's absences

Personal factors

- Poor academic performance, sometimes because of special education needs, and a resulting lack of self-esteem

- Unmet mental health needs

- Alcohol and drug use and abuse

- Lack of vision of education as a means to achieve goals

Within the past 10 years, 34,547 West Virginia students have dropped out of high school. Moats said it's likely those dropout numbers will only increase over time unless communities work together to address the problem. Because children of individuals who withdrew from school before graduation have a higher probability of doing the same as their parents, the next West Virginia generation could have a population of 60,000 or more dropouts.

"This trend is getting bigger, getting faster and becoming very frightening," Moats said.

Not only have dropouts increased, but so have drug-related crime numbers among those 18 to 24. Moats said 75 percent is a conservative number for drug-related crimes in West Virginia counties. Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Godwin Wilfong and Tucker County Prosecuting Attorney Mont Miller agreed that 85 to 90 percent would be more accurate for drug-related crimes in their respective counties.

"We have over 7,000 people a day quit school in this country," Moats said. "Eight out of 10 ... end up in prison. This is a national statistic, and it's true in West Virginia."

Parents who think they and their children are unaffected by those who are not attending school are wrong. Moats reminded those in the courtroom that students who do go to school every day can suffer because teachers are trying to help those who were absent catch-up with their work.

Even those without children in school can be affected by truancy and dropout rates. Moats explained that dropouts are more likely to remain in the community, causing a strain on resources.

Forty years ago, the U.S. boasted the highest high school graduation rate in the world. Today, the U.S. has dropped to 19 in the rankings among developed nations.

"This is a frightening statistic," Moats commented.

Moats says this alarming statistic could eventually lead to a national security issue because of the possibility that the nation will not have enough skilled workers and educated individuals to provide scientific advancements.

Moats encouraged technical programs that give students who learn better from a hands-on approach the opportunity to succeed and learn work skills. He explained that around the year 2000, the Taylor County technical school began to "dismantle" programs. Also around that time, the dropout rate in Taylor County went from being one of the lowest in the state, to being the highest.

"I don't believe that's a coincidence," Moats said. "I believe there is a direct correlation there , and it shows the importance of having those kinds of programs in our school system."

There's not a "simple" answer to the problem, Moats said. He does think problems need to be addressed as early as elementary school because it may be too late for intervention by the time students get to middle or high school.

While Moats think the dropout and truancy issue should have been addressed 20 years ago, "the next best time is today."

Davis said that each community is unique with its own resources and each area of West Virginia needs to determine its own plan of attack to fight truancy and dropout rates. She added that Wilfong and Randolph County Schools Superintendent Dr. James Phares are committed to stepping up and being leaders for the county.

Phares said he is planning to work with Chief Probation Officer Heidi Flynn and Randolph County Schools Attendance Director Lynn Proudfoot to schedule a series of community forums. The forums, which Phares says should take place within the next two months, will give residents a chance to share their opinions about how to combat problems with truancy and dropouts. Also, Phares said he will meet with interested individuals to hear their ideas during his office hours.

During the 2009-2010 school year 955 Randolph County students had between five and nine unexcused absences. In Tucker County, 178 students had five to nine days of unexcused absences, and in Pendleton County that figure was 185. Those with 10 or more unexcused absences were 886 in Randolph County, 73 in Tucker County and 41 in Pendleton County.



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