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Courts tough on truants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In an aggressive effort to crack down on student truancy, West Virginia judges are taking students who refuse to attend school away from their homes and shipping them to emergency shelters throughout the state.

Shelter owners say that, because of the statewide push, their emergency homes are overrun with truants who often crowd out other children more in need of the shelters' services.

Steve Tuck, the CEO of Children's Home Society, which operates 10 shelters in the state, says he doesn't believe shelters are the places to temporarily house truant children.

"We happen to think the kids are best served in their own homes with support services," Tuck said. "There needs to be more emphasis on prevention. But we try to cooperate."

As the West Virginia Supreme Court pushes a major anti-truancy crusade throughout the state via the court system, shelter owners are grappling with the court's decision to send the worst of the truant students to shelters.

There are only 16 shelters in the state and the majority only have 10 or so beds. Mounds-ville's Helinski Shelter, the largest shelter in the state, has 16 beds.

Tuck said that since the big court push against truancy, more than 50 percent of a shelter's beds are devoted to truancy cases.

"The state's kind of sporadic in terms of how it's dealing with truancy and shelters," Tuck said.

West Virginia has major problems within its education system, from some of the lowest test scores in the nation to a big shortage of teachers, but one of the most frustrating problems for educators has been how to get students to show up to school in the first place.

About one in five West Virginia students - almost 78,200 - had five or more unexcused absences last year, according to the state Department of Education. More than 29,000 students, or 9 percent of students statewide, have been truant more than 10 days this year.

Last year, Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis coordinated a statewide effort to connect circuit judges with school systems and community officials to try to keep children in school. The result has been a patchwork of collaboration in different counties among a slew of agencies.

In Kanawha County, once a student misses more than five days of school without an excused absence, parents get a legal notice from the school system. Kanawha County Magistrate Tracy Carper Strickland schedules a meeting with students and their parents and, eventually, students have a court hearing.

Students who have been found truant are put on probation plans with probation officers who check in on the students to make sure they're going to school. After subsequent court hearings, if a student still refuses to go to school, the court system orders the student to leave home and be placed in shelters or facilities where they will be forced to attend school.

"Where there's an opening, we try to put them in the least restrictive environment," said Duke Bloom, Kanawha County circuit court judge. "But it's a last resort. It is a problem to find people placement. There were placement problems before for other folks that are charged with delinquency. It's an issue that there is not enough space."

In Kanawha County, 243 truancy petitions were filed with the court system for the 2011-12 school year. Judges placed 143 of those students on formal probation and improvement periods.

There were 21 Kanawha County students who were taken out of their homes as a result of truancy and placed in shelters and facilities with on-the-ground schools. Ten of those students are still in placements.

Strickland said it used to be "run of the mill" to place students in Department of Health and Human Resources custody and in shelters, but the court realized "we were burning our resources and overloading everyone."

The purpose of emergency shelters is to provide a supportive environment for children reeling from family dysfunction, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, the loss of family or a failed placement in a foster home. The shelters are meant to mimic a home environment and provide children with support and counseling.

Children who are placed in shelters for truancy are often uprooted from their homes and relocated to different school districts. Children are placed in whichever shelter in the state has a free bed, which often means moving them miles away from their homes.

"It creates quite a challenge," Tuck said. "If students are from a different county, they have to enroll in a completely new school. There are some problems with continuity."

In Nicholas County, which began an anti-truancy program four years ago and is seen as a statewide model, the judges say they are putting more of an emphasis on prevention rather than placing students in shelters. Having all the truancy cases come to the circuit courts before the magistrate courts is a major plus, said Levy Bragg, juvenile probation officer for Nicholas County.

"Starting in circuit court is a big eye-opener," Bragg said. "They understand, if they do not comply, they could be removed from their homes. They don't want it. They take it pretty seriously. The vast majority of the parents are glad to have support of the court system in helping to get their children to school."

Nicholas County Circuit Judge Gary Johnson estimated that less than 10 percent of the truancy cases that reach his bench require children to be sent to shelters.

Only one student this semester was removed from his or her home and placed in a shelter.

"The majority of the children go through the probation and improve," Bragg said.

Last year, about eight Nicholas County students were taken from their homes and placed in shelters.

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


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