Eagle County schools to crack down on truancy | VailDaily.com

Eagle County schools to crack down on truancy

Matt Terrell
Eagle County, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” When students don’t show up for class, Mike Gass goes looking for them.

As truancy officer for the school district, Gass shows up at their homes, knocks on the front doors and confronts kids missing too many days of school and the parents who let them off the hook.

With some prodding, most of these students go back, but when they ignore the warnings, it’s difficult to do anything about it.

The school district will soon be adding some legal teeth to its truancy enforcement by partnering with Eagle County’s district courts to expedite truancy cases. Parents and their kids will soon be answering to a judge for missing school.

Any child between ages 7 and 17 must attend school, but the legal system usually takes too long to effectively hold families accountable, Gass says.

Take a high school student for instance, who can’t miss more than eight days of class. By the time he’s given a summons and a court date, weeks later, he’ll have missed too much school to get credit.

“The bottom line is if a kid’s in danger of being drooped, say he’s just missed day seven, it could take weeks before I got him to court, and then it’s too late,” Gass said. “If I can turn it around in a day or two, that makes a big difference.”

The whole idea behind a Truancy Court is to give these cases some priority and take action quickly.

“It’s like getting a zero-to-60 opportunity with the legal system,” Gass said.

Soon, when families aren’t cooperating, schools can count on law enforcement to get these families in front of a judge.

At this point, a lot of things could happen, depending on the situation, says 5th Judicial District Court Judge Frederick W. Gannett. It could be matter of parental neglect ” or maybe the student is out of control. A big priority will be immediately determining what’s causing a kid to miss school.

“It could be drugs and alcohol, they could be attending the wrong school, it could be a parental component ” maybe they’re so overworked that their ability to take care of their kids is diminished,” Gannett said. “We are catching these things so late in the game, and it’s tough to make a meaningful impact.”

Students will of course be expected to go back to school ” but other things could happen as well. They may need foster care, drug and alcohol treatment, criminal corrections, or maybe a transfer to another school. In some cases, nothing extra would be required, as long as they’re going back to school. That’s for the judge to decide.

No matter what, students will be closely monitored and helped through the system. Gass said it’s important to ensure that students get the support they need to keep going to school ” maybe helping them find day care, or finding parenting classes, or finding them an alternative school.

“We want to make sure we have good supports in place for families ” it could be pretty stressful, youth-in-crisis type situation where they are really out of control,” Gass said. “We need to make sure that we do it right.”

The schools see this as one of many ways of keeping troubled students from dropping out of school. The dropout rate has steadily risen the past four years in Eagle County, and is for the first time higher than the state average.

Students start skipping school to work their second job, baby-sit their brothers and sisters or their own kids. Absences start to pile up, grades drop, and it becomes harder and harder to catch up.

“For ones that don’t make it, we always go back and ask, ‘Do we know why these kids haven’t hung with us?” Gass said.

From a criminal justice perspective, Gannett says a lot of difference can be made in young kids, while it’s more difficult to change lives and behaviors in adults.

“The earlier you intervene, and the more cooperatively you intervene, the more likely you are to take a kid who’s potentially on a bad path and redirect them,” Gannett said.

The new system will hopefully be in place sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Gannett said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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