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."