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Federal Agencies Team Up to Spotlight Truancy Concerns

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More than 600 educators, police officers, judges, and social-service providers gathered here at a major federal conference to share strategies and discuss model programs for reducing truancy and keeping students at risk of poor attendance engaged in school.

The U.S. departments of Education and Justice sponsored the Dec. 6-8 conference, "Partnering to Prevent Truancy: A National Priority," with the goal of bringing together a broad range of stakeholders to focus on an issue that school districts have been tackling with growing urgency. ("Districts Tackling Truancy With New Zeal," Sept. 22, 2004.)

Participants from across the nation attended workshops that, among other subjects, looked at how state and local policies affect school attendance, ways that law enforcement agencies can form partnerships with schools to reduce truancy, and creative approaches juvenile- and family-court judges are taking to keep students in school.

"You can have reforms, but if kids are not in school, education just doesn't happen," Deborah A. Price, the deputy undersecretary for the Education Department's office of safe and drug-free schools, told a packed ballroom at the Capital Hilton. "The truancy issue is one that we take very seriously."

Deborah J. Daniels, the assistant attorney general in the office of justice for the Justice Department, noted that communities pay a high cost for truancy in the form of daytime crime and other negative social behaviors. But a cost-benefit analysis released in 2003 by the National Center for School Engagement, located in Denver, found that effective truancy-prevention programs that lead to students graduating from high school could save a community $8 million to $63 million in future spending on prosecuting criminal activity, Ms. Daniels said.

"We know that the education system can't do it alone," she said. "We need to see truancy as a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions. This is not a time for separate entities to focus on separate issues."

One approach that will not work, according to James B. Comey, the deputy attorney general in the Justice Department, is relying solely on punitive measures.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this problem," Mr. Comey said. "Our goal is to weave a cloth of accountability that involves commitment and partnerships among courts, schools, families, and communities. The strength of this fabric depends on the participation of prosecutors, judges, and police officers in ways that they have not traditionally viewed their jobs."

Working Together

Judge Joan L. Byer, a family-court judge in Jefferson County, Ky., is working to do that by changing the perception that many families and students have of courts as punitive institutions of last resort.

In the early 1990s, officials of the 96,000-student Jefferson school district, which includes Louisville, and the family court knew they needed to take a new approach with truant students. A review of more than 500 truancy cases that had reached the court showed no measurable increase in school attendance, Judge Byer said.

"Why do we keep assuming if we punish kids and harass them, it's going to work?" the judge asked during a workshop about a partnership the district and the family court started in 1997 called the Jefferson County Truancy Court Diversion Project. "The courts are terribly ineffective in getting kids back to school."

The project, which has become a national model adopted by family courts in Charlotte, N.C., Kansas City, Mo., and other cities, works by early identification of students with attendance problems. A social worker and a school representative visit students' families to tell them that their children are eligible for an alternative program.

A case plan then is drawn up for each family that includes extensive information about economic, heath, or relationship challenges the family is facing so that appropriate referrals can be made to social-service providers.

Family-court judges volunteer to hold "court"—for this role, the judges assume no jurisdictional au-thority—in the early morning before school starts once a week. Terms are set for a student's plan to improve school attendance with a school official, family member, and social worker present.

Instead of an accusatory tone, the gatherings stress positive reinforcement for small improvements over the 10- to 12-week program. The court-diversion project hosts "family fun nights," for example, to give parents, school officials, and judges an opportunity to interact in friendly ways.

"We found when we treated the family with respect, the families had respect for the court system that they never had before," Judge Byer said.

Linda Wilhelms, a retired court liaison for Kentucky's Jefferson County schools, stressed that starting such programs requires institutions to be flexible in ways they normally are not.

Ms. Williams called the reluctance of schools and courts to think differently about their roles "institutional constipation."

"If movement comes," she said, "it will come very slowly and come at an institution's own terms. We had to work around people sometimes."

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