PRINCETON -- Mercer County truancy rates are down by more than 80 percent since the school and judicial systems formed a partnership last year to combat the problem.
The truancy rate for sixth- to 12th-grade students is down by 85 percent, while the rate for kindergarten through fifth-grade students has dropped by 86 percent, Circuit Court Chief Judge Omar Aboulhosn told the Bluefield Daily Telegraph.
"In general, the statistics seem to have been proven true,'' Aboulhosn said. "We have had about an 80-percent reduction for children in the truancy program. Kids who come into the program were missing in excess of five days a month in a month where there were only 20 or 22 school days. The program seems to be working. I think school administrators will tell you they are seeing a decline in the number of students missing class or coming in late.''
Mercer County's program is part of a West Virginia Supreme Court initiative that pairs up the circuit court system, local school boards and social agencies to help keep students in school. Last fall, the Department of Education said that more than one-third of West Virginia students, or 108,000, had at least five unexcused absences during the 2011-2012 school year.
Under the program, the county Board of Education files truancy petitions in court for students. In some cases, abuse and neglect petitions are filed against parents or guardians.
Students found to be chronically truant must either follow court-ordered improvement plans or be placed on probation.
Keeping students in school now will keep them out of jail later, Aboulhosn said.
"The goal is for them to get their high school diploma or GED diploma,'' he said. "We want them all to graduate high school. Some of these kids are about to age out of high school, so we encourage them to get their GED. We have had a lot of success stories where kids have stayed in school, gotten their diploma and said thank you to us for keeping them in school. We hope we can make an impact. That impact may be 10 years down the road, but we want to see an impact to reduce the jail population by keeping these kids in school.''
The program, which began in January 2012, also helps students resolve other issues, such as mental health problems, drugs or family issues.
"These are really difficult cases. They take up a whole lot of time in dealing with these cases for us, probation officers. We are dealing with a lifetime of issues in these cases and trying to resolve them. A lifetime of family problems, drug abuse and mental health problems are culminating in this one case. It takes a lot of time and energy, but ultimately we think it's worth it,'' Abhoulhosn said.