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Look out, here comes the Truant Officer!
It’s In your court
Judge Steve Halsey
Wright County District Court
If you grew up in the 1950’s and 60’s you probably remember watching the ‘Our Gang’ comedies from the 1930’s in which Spanky, Alfalfa, and Buckwheat play hooky from school and are chased by the truant officer. That was funny but there is nothing funny about truancy. It is a major problem in many of our schools and results in a significant waste of educational resources and your tax paying dollars.
Minnesota law requires school attendance for every child between seven and sixteen years old. Notice must be sent to parents when a child has missed three or more class periods on three days of middle or senior high school; three days in elementary school. Habitual truancy is defined as seven full or partial days of unexcused absences. Medical appointments and illness are excused. Missing the bus, working, or caring for younger siblings is not an excused absence.
Parents are primarily responsible for assuring that their children are attending school and receiving an education. The child is also responsible for attending school. If the child is habitually truant, the child may have to appear in juvenile court. Child protection services may also become involved, including placing the child in foster care.
One would think that it should be an accepted fact that children need to attend school to gain an adequate education and prepare them for a productive adult life. However, some families suffer from significant dysfunction which, if not remedied, requires the intervention of government and, possibly, the placement of children out of the family home. Prior to such drastic measures, however, parents are afforded the opportunity to remedy their child’s truant behavior and regularly get their child to school. Many counties have diversion programs in which there is a meeting of the parents, child, school officials, and possibly a social worker and assistant county attorney to reach an agreement on a plan to correct the truant behavior. Only if diversion is unsuccessful is there a court proceeding. A student age 16-18 seeking to withdraw from school (‘dropout’) must meet with his or her parent and school personnel to discuss educational opportunities before withdrawing, and have the parent’s permission.
The collateral consequences of truancy are significant to society in terms of criminal activity and the attendant increase in victims of crime, demands on law enforcement and the court system, and lost revenue to school districts. In addition, resources are devoted to assisting students aged 18-21 in obtaining their diplomas several years after their peers have graduated.
Effects of truancy on the student include decreased learning ability, involvement in daytime crime, such as breaking and entering, vandalism, and shoplifting, increased risk of dropping out of school, involvement in gangs, struggling to catch up with school assignments, failing classes, and risk of not obtaining an education and being unprepared for adult work life. It perpetuates the circle of poverty within families.
How can you help? If you are a parent, do not enable truant behavior by calling the school to cover absences that are not legitimate. Seek help if your child refuses to go to school. Be a mentor. Volunteer to read to students at a nearby school. Support programs in your community that strive to reduce truancy and school dropout rates. We can all devote some time to reducing teen truancy.
Submitted by Judge Steve Halsey, Wright County District Court, chambered in Buffalo.