By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
The Mercer County Board of Education filed approximately 80 truancy petitions and more than a dozen education abuse and neglect petitions Wednesday as part of the county’s ongoing truancy prevention program.
Officials with the Mercer County Circuit Court and West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) met to set preliminary hearing dates for each of the approximately 80 truancy offenders. The addition of 80 new offenders brings the total number of active truancy cases in Mercer County to approximately to 190.
In addition to the status offender petitions for middle and high school students, the school system will also be submitting to the DHHR more than a dozen education abuse and neglect petitions for parents and guardians of elementary students violating school truancy policies.
Circuit Court Chief Judge Omar Aboulhosn will be holding general arraignment days on Feb. 11 and 13 while Circuit Court Judge William Saddler will conduct preliminary hearings for offenders on Feb. 19 and 21. Pending the review of hearings, students found chronically truant must either adhere to court-ordered improvement plans or be placed on probation.
Mercer County school policy defines truancy as more than five unexcused absences in a school year, though allowances are made for students with extenuating circumstances including chronic illness or family crisis.
Aboulhosn said from the outset, the goal of the program is to provide services children need to get them back into the classroom and on the path to graduation. Aboulhosn said students who attend school are more likely to graduate and less likely to appear in the criminal justice system as adults.
“Research shows education is the key to a child’s future,” he said. “If they don’t finish high school, there is an 80 percent chance they will end up in the prison system during their lifetime. Most of the time, the criminal matters we see are committed by people who dropped out of school.”
Additionally, officials have found truancy among young children is often an indication of parental neglect. As a result, parents with children between kindergarten and fifth grade, who are found truant are referred to the DHHR for parenting classes, financial assistance, counseling, health evaluations, and other services.
Kellan Sarles, information specialist with the school system, said the board is seeing a positive impact as a result of the program.
“It really has helped,” she said. “We have looked at the attendance rates since last year and we have see major increases in our attendance. Being in school routinely makes going to school a routine. You aren’t afraid you have missed so much you can’t go back. Especially on the high school level where we have block classes, absences can lead to students missing a lot of important material in their core curriculum.”
In September 2011, the Mercer County Board of Education approved allocating funds for an additional probation officer to work solely on cases of school truancy. Officer Nola Ingram was named to that position, and works exclusively on truancy cases, handling 70 percent of all referrals.
Now in its second year, the collaboration between Mercer County Schools and Mercer County Circuit Court is unique. The program was initiated by the West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis who called for bringing chronically truant students before judges in order to charge them as status offenders, require a personal recognizance bond, and impose penalties including supervised probation. When truancy is especially severe, students can be relocated to a facility with a school on campus.
According to Mercer County Schools findings, eight of 10 dropouts end up in prison during some time in their lives and high school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed, live below the poverty line, and become involved with illegal substances.
— Contact Kate Coil at firstname.lastname@example.org