Palm Beach County Creates New Truancy Court
A new truancy court has been established in Palm Beach County which won’t just target the children who are missing too much school; it will go after the parents who may end up serving jail time if they don’t take the necessary steps to make sure their children are in school where they belong.
The truancy court is a pilot program created by Palm Beach Circuit Court Judge Kathleen Kroll in conjunction with the School District, the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, and Boys Town South Florida; a nonprofit organization which provides family support services. Kroll, who works in the juvenile division, became interested in devising a better truancy system after observing that teen criminals who ended up in her courtroom usually had a habit of missing school.
She explained, “By the time kids were 16 or 17, we couldn’t do much for them anymore.” For that reason, the truancy court focuses on children below the fourth grade because, according to Kroll, habits can still be changed at that age, and it’s commonly due to the parents that their children are not attending school as they should. She cites drug addition, medical issues, or mental health problems as the most likely reasons that parents are not getting their kids to school.
Just how big a problem is truancy in this area? Well, in the 2009-2010 school year, the county’s schools reported that 6.6 percent of its 198,351 students committed truancy. In the same year, in Broward County, 12.6 percent of 287,935 students committed truancy. And these records only included students with at least 21 unexcused absences, which means the percentage of students missing at least 15 days is probably higher.
Currently 11 elementary schools with known truancy issues are part of this pilot program, although it may expand to other schools in the next school year if it is successful.
This is how it works: Over a three month period, if a child has 5 unexcused absences, the School District sends a letter home to the parents. After 10 unexcused absences, the parents get a second letter and a call from a “truancy liason.” After 15 unexcused absences, social workers with Boys Town work with both the parents and the children to figure out what is going on. Finally, if no progress is made after these interventions, the case goes to Judge Kroll.
The program director for Boys Town South Florida, Seth Bernstein explained, “Maybe a parent is significantly depressed and can’t get their child ready for school. Or a parent goes to wake their child up in the morning and can’t coax them out of bed.” The Children’s Services Council is funding the social services provided for situations like these from Boys Town.
So what happens if the program’s social services have intervened but are unable to make a difference and the truancies continue? At this point, a letter from Judge Kroll is sent home warning the parents that they will be summoned to appear in court. They have hearings within three months of this notice, where Kroll may order the parents to get into a rehab program or get therapy of some kind. It is only at this point that parents would be referred to prosecutors for criminal charges if they fail to comply with the court’s orders.
So far, the pilot program which began in November has not filed any criminal cases, but the agency has provided parenting classes and child behavior support to about 10 families.
Council spokeswoman Marlene Passell, emphasized the need to focus the program on the youngest students whose behavior patterns are just developing. “If they’re not forced to go to school, they won’t value it later,” she said.
I congratulate Judge Kroll, the School District, the Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County, and Boys Town South Florida for what seems to be a well-devised program, with plenty of opportunities for parents to get the support they need to change their lives and their children’s lives as well.
It is unfortunate that the headlines only focus on the worst-case scenario, instead of focusing on the potentially powerful impact this pilot program might have on the communities in Palm Beach County. I am anxious to see what kind of results this program has, and am hopeful that the truancy rate in this county will drop significantly as a result.