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Truancy campaign 'needs resources,' leaders say

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Social workers on the front lines of West Virginia's war on student truancy are understaffed and underpaid, judges involved in a new anti-truancy campaign told lawmakers on Monday.

"We definitely need more resources directed at the Department of Health and Human Resources," said Circuit Judge Alan Moats, a key player in the anti-truancy initiative whose circuit includes Barbour and Taylor counties. "We're running into shortages of youth service workers at counties with truancy programs across the state. We're currently sending all our cases to DHHR because we don't have any choices."

Moats and Supreme Court Justice Robin Davis briefed state lawmakers Monday about how the court's push to pair up most of the state's circuit court systems, local school boards and social agencies to keep students in school is playing out one year into the effort.

Overall, Moats said, what the truancy initiative has accomplished is "nothing short of incredible." He said that as the courts hear more and more truancy cases, there are fewer juvenile-delinquency cases that end up at their doorstep.

But he stressed that a lack of resources for DHHR social workers and Child Protective Services is a major problem that still needs to be addressed.

"It comes down to whose problem this is," said Moats. "There's no way that you, as a Legislature, can legislate your way out of this problem. As judges, we can't order our way out of the problem from the benches. It has to be solved collectively at the community level."

In West Virginia, about 1 in 5 students -- almost 78,200 -- skipped school five or more times without a valid excuse, according to the state Department of Education. Students are considered truant if they have five or more unexcused absences. More than 29,000 students, or 9 percent statewide, were truant more than 10 days last year.

Almost 40 percent of public schools in West Virginia had more than a quarter of their students skip school five or more times without an approved excuse. At 25 schools, more than half of the student body was truant for five or more days.

"It's a huge problem with monstrous ramifications," said Moats. "Years ago, if people quit school, they could find a job in construction and in the mines. Those jobs no longer exist. Dropouts can't get jobs, and many of them fall into drugs. They need to feed their drug habit. So when they quit school, they're going to get in trouble."

About 80 percent of people who drop out of school at some point in their lives will end up in jail, according to numbers from the educational nonprofit Mattie C. Stewart Foundation. Within West Virginia, 75 percent of all prison inmates are high school dropouts, said Moats.

Moats said breaking the cycle of truancy begins with getting parents to see the value of education.

"It is a multigenerational phenomenon," said Moats. "Dropouts beget more dropouts, and the cycle goes on and on."

In Barbour County, for example, 92 percent of school dropouts had at least one parent who had dropped out of school, according to county data.

The court system is cracking down on the parents of truant students and is making an increased push to catch the truancy program when students are still in elementary school. But Moats admits that the legal system can only do so much.

"I can fine parents in my circuit for not taking their kids to school," said Moats. "And if they come back, I can tell them I'm going to put you in jail. But truancy is just the tip of the iceberg. In many of these homes, there are all sorts of other problems with drugs, abuse and neglect that we need to deal with."

That's where DHHR comes in.

In many counties, DHHR youth service workers provide parenting instruction and mentoring to truant students and their families once they've been brought to court.

Delegate Stan Shaver, D-Preston, doesn't know whether that makes sense, given DHHR's already high turnover and low youth service worker salaries.

"What you have is a system where DHHR can't follow through on helping these students and families because they have too many caseloads," said Shaver. "The system just stalls. We need to find a way to put teeth in the system so we can tackle the process earlier and make parents take their kids to school before DHHR has to get involved."

Reach Amy Julia Harris at amy.harris@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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