by Cynthia Price
Work that began four years ago is coming to fruition as 17th Circuit Court Family Division Judges Kathleen Feeney and Paul Denenfeld start to hold sessions of Truancy Court.
Judge Feeney, who has chaired the initiative from the beginning, comments, “We thought last spring that we’d be able to get going in the fall, but then we had to narrow down the schools. It’s been hard for everyone to figure it out — after all, we’re trying to change the system.”
The process began when Governor Rick Snyder held a conference on addressing the school-dropout-to-prison-pipeline in 2013.
“The conference had national speakers, including Hedy Chang, who’s at the forefront of the whole movement,” Judge Feeney says. Chang is the executive director of Attendance Works, “a national and state level initiative aimed at advancing student success by addressing chronic absence.”
Impressed by what they learned, Judge Feeney and many others pulled together the Kent School-Justice Partnership (KS-JP), which also conformed to a request made by Gov. Snyder at the time. The team included representatives from the courts, the schools, law enforcement, prosecutors, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Kent School Services Network, Community Mental Health, and the restorative justice community as well as from the Grand Valley State University Johnson?Center for Philanthropy data center.
The KS-JP, excited to put together a five-year plan to prevent high dropout rates and address the disproportionate burden felt by youth of color, ran into its first hurdle almost immediately.
In order to get a handle on the magnitude of the problem, and to track progress later on, the group sought data and statistics.
However, a principle of such data collection is that numbers need to be kept consistently across different data sources, which KS-JP found was not the case.
“There’s no statewide definition for truancy or chronic absenteeism,” says Judge Feeney. “I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Apparently there were some bills last year that would have addressed that, introduced by Tonya Schuitmaker, whose district juts up into Kentwood, but it was lame duck and they didn’t pass before the end of the term.
“We worked with her a little bit and they’ve been reintroduced and are out of committee already, but we just decided we couldn’t wait.”
So the group contacted all of the school districts and proposed that they adopt the same definitions, which was ultimately successful. The agreed-upon definitions are that truancy is ten or more unexcused absences in a school year, and chronic absenteeism is defined as missing more than 10% of school days to that point in the school year.
The partnership started exploring what was being done around the state, and found a good model in the Ingham County Truancy Court.
Started by Judge Rick Garcia and others in 2001, the court has been successful in reducing truancy numbers, as well as seeing a large positive impact on the number of delinquency petitions by as much as 50%.
This seemed good to the KS-JP, which started exploring what statute the court might operate under.
Judge Feeney says that, though there is currently no statute that specifically addresses truancy, but the language of MCL 712A.2(a)(4) is pertinent.?It refers to the court’s having authority and jurisdiction when “The juvenile willfully and repeatedly absents himself or herself from school or other learning program intended to meet the juvenile's educational needs...”
The Truancy Court kicks in after the school districts have followed all of their policy directives to curtail the absenteeism. The court will then issue a ticket for the infraction, serve the ticket on the student — which Judge Feeney says has been one of the learning curves encountered during the pilot so far — and supply a pro bono attorney, with parent attendance required. Through the attorney, the student enters a plea which the judges hold in abeyance as they issue orders, including that the student must attend school every day for the next 30 school days, with no exceptions.
“If the terms are met, then off you go,” says Judge Feeney. “If not, you’ll have to pay for the attorney and see a probation officer.”
At the same time, the parents and children will have access to community services through various agencies including the Circuit Court’s Crisis Intervention Program.
The final step in starting up the court was obtaining schools committed to the process. Wyoming and Godwin Heights school districts have stepped up. The pilot covers students in grades five to nine.
Judge Feeney credits Kent County Intermediate School District personnel with conducting the negotiations that made this possible, as well as other aspects of the KS-JP’s liaison with the educational system: Superintendent Ron Caniff, Assistant Superintendent for Organizational and Community Initiatives Ron Koehler and Attendance and Truancy Officer Mark Larson.
The KS-JP’s wish list includes creating an alternative school like the successful Ingham Academy so that students are “off the streets,” as Judge Feeney puts it, and less likely to get in trouble.
“We’re also thinking that we’re going to start expanding on the other end, the prevention end, making sure that everyone knows that attendance matters,” she adds. There is a great deal of research showing broad societal benefits of nipping truancy in the bud, including a comprehensive book by the aforementioned Hedy Chang.
“We are not going away,” Judge Feeney promises.