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Washington County attorney targets truancy

Washington County Attorney Pete Orput's office is working on a new program aimed at keeping truant youths out of the court system. Bulletin file photo by Riham Feshir

Trying to keep students in school is a job that has suffered from the economic downturn.

Truant 16- and 17-year-olds no longer receive intervention services from a Washington County Community Services program that saw budget cuts in the last couple of years.

The Washington County Attorney's Office is working to kick-start a new program that would allow prosecutors to intervene and keep kids out of the court system. It's been among County Attorney Pete Orput's priorities during his first year in office.

Assistant County Attorney Susan Harris is leading the initiative and hopes to have it in place by the end of this school year.

She said that the current process where a student receives a letter from the school after three unexcused absences informing them of their truancy, would go in a little bit of a different direction.

Currently, once 12- to 16-year-olds hit seven unexcused absences, truancy workers who cover different school districts in the county meet with the child, parent and a school official.

They set up a "diversion contract" that determines what they need to do to get the child back in school.

"Maybe there are issues about bullying, maybe that's why a child isn't going to school," Harris said. "It could be that they're dealing with chemical dependency or mental health issues, other family dynamics.

"There are all sorts of reasons why kids stay at home."

If those issues aren't resolved or students violate the diversion contract, they end up in court facing a variety of dispositions that range from community service to fines, she said.

But like other programs that have suffered from budget cuts, diversion meetings have also been hurt.

"Resources have cut those meetings out for the last two years and we think those types of interventions have a big impact and we want to keep kids out of court," Harris said.

What Harris and Orput are trying to do is get involved early on in the process, rather than waiting to see the students in court.

"Instead of waiting months, we can intervene much quicker," Orput said. "And time is everything with some of these kids."

He said getting those chronically truant students back in school will help them stay out of the court system in the long run.

The county is currently dealing with about 40 kids who were petitioned to court due to a number of unexcused absences.

Most of them are "truly chronic" cases, Orput said.

"Sometimes somebody will skip five days of school, go to school, maybe several months later skip another five and continue that kind of pattern where they're right on the edge of Sue's attention but haven't gotten there yet," Orput said.

He added that having Harris as a liaison in the schools for intervention meetings would be beneficial to those students and get them help before they get to that chronic stage.

"There are some theories that if you miss school early on and you begin to lag behind your peers, that gives you more incentive to say 'ah, the heck with it' by the time you're in high school and have really fallen behind in reading, math and all that," Orput said. "And when Sue gets them at 16 or 17, that child might be three, four, five grades back and it's almost insurmountable to them and it becomes somewhat that way for us."

District 833 officials met with Orput to discuss the proposed program earlier this month.

Communications Director Barb Brown said school administrators are not sure what type of changes or how the new program would impact truancy among students.

The district will continue the current process with families and children who are absent from school, she added, until a new program is implemented.

A trial of the new truancy intervention program is set to begin at the end of next month.

Orput said the new program will not take over social services' efforts to get truant kids help when it comes to mental health, chemical dependency or family troubles at home, but will collaborate to strengthen the system.

"When parents get called to a meeting not just with the social worker but a prosecutor, I think the importance of the message is said a little louder," Orput said.

Most kids who start their teenage years in the court system may never be able to get out of that lifestyle as adults, he added.

"I'd prefer to try another strategy," Orput said. "We're already busy enough, I don't need any more files."

Riham Feshir
Riham Feshir is a reporter and photographer for the Woodbury Bulletin. Her coverage includes Woodbury City Hall, Washington County Board of Commissioners and business news.  Follow Riham on Twitter @RihamFeshir for the latest updates.