Lessons learned in Eagle County truancy court
EAGLE, Colorado – We’ll call the teenage boy “Louis,” and he’s clearly uncomfortable under Judge Fred Gannett’s steady gaze.
Colorado law requires kids to be in school until they’re 17, and Luis is not. On this day Luis and a dozen or so others are in Gannett’s courtroom to explain why they ditched school for weeks at a stretch.
“How much school would you say you’ve missed?” he asked each of them in turn.
A month. Two months. Some more, some less.
“There are two reasons you’re here today. First, you’re all under the age of 17 and there’s a state law that says you much be in school. Until then, the law requires that you be in school,” Gannett said.
“Here’s my offer. You go to school. You stay in school. If you can do that through the end of the year you’ll have no reason to be back,” Gannett said.
Then he added a sobering statistic.
“About one of three will be back in here pretty soon,” he told them.
Gannett holds truancy court once a week. Kids with a laissez faire attitude about attending school are visited at home by Mike Gass, the school district’s director of student services.
Gass may not be the big boss at the school district, but he’s a big boss. He’s about 6-foot-3 and looks like a good-natured Peterbilt when he shows up at the front door to talk to truant kids and their parents. He hands them legal documents demanding parents and their progeny appear in Gannett’s court.
If a kid misses 10 days they usually end up there. But there are lots of steps along the way: attendance, grades, failing classes.
Gass’s best guess is that 50 percent of the kids he sees for truancy see Gannett or some other judge for other issues.
Still, the school district’s truancy program appears to work.
Battle Mountain High School, for example, has 741 students and 95 percent of them are in school when they’re supposed to be. Discipline problems have been cut in half, Gass said.
Some kids in court Friday were on a first name basis with the judge, but really, really don’t want to be.
“Welcome back, ma’am,” Gannett said to one teenage girl.
He looked at one young man wearing a hat in his courtroom.
“If it rains you can put your hat back on,” Gannett told him.
The lad quickly pulled off his hat and set it on the prosecutor’s table.
“Anyone think this is just crap, that the court is trying to bully you into doing something you don’t want to do?” Gannett asks the kids and their parents assembled before him.
“Why did you miss more than a month of school?” he asked one young woman.
“I don’t know,” she said – not an acceptable answer in Gannett’s court.
“Well I’m sure you do.”
He addressed their parents.
“Almost everything I see in this room is something bad and can have serious implications in someone’s life,” Gannett said. “The truancy issue is different. It’s simple. Just get the kid to school. It’s not easy to get someone to do something they do not want, but as parents it’s your obligation.”
He can order parents to go to school and sit with their kids.
Gannett has options that he says doesn’t want to use, but has and probably will again.
“You can be arrested and sent to a place where you’ll be in school. You may not like it and you may not learn much. But you’ll be in school,” he said.
Non-believers suffer what are euphemistically called “out of house” consequences, Gass said. One kid missed so much school he was sentenced to his out-of-house consequence before Christmas and missed the holidays with his family.
Then he looked at the largely Hispanic group and gave them a lesson in perspective, saying studies show that people who speak two or more languages enjoy significant advantages.
“I want you to have choices. I want you to have the most choices. You have a huge advantage. A huge component of this country speaks Spanish. One of the shortcomings of this country is that Americans have not taken the opportunity to learn a second language. If you finish high school and go to college, it’s an even bigger lever,” Gannett said. “If I had one regret, it’s that I don’t speak another language. Make use of the skills you have.”
But no school, no advantages, Gannett said.
“You get to my age and don’t have a high school degree, your life is going to be miserable … miserable. It used to be that you could earn a pretty good living doing manual labor. That’s no longer true. The economy is different,” Gannett said.
He leaned forward over this bench and looked each kid in the eye.
“Where will you be Tuesday?” he asked.
“School,” they each replied in turn.
“7:30,” one boy said.
“What time does it start?”
“8:30,” a girl answered.
And with that most of them filed out the courtroom door.
Gannett kept three afterward, all repeat customers. The three boys are close to suffering their “out-of-house” consequences.
“It has to be different. We’re at a point where I have to try something different and there are not a lot of options open to me,” Gannett told them and their parents.
He looked at them, paused briefly as if seeing the forks in their roads, and tried once more.
“School, school, school. If I hear back from the schools that you are not there, we’ll meet each other again,” Gannett said. “It’s what’s required. It’s the law. You can endure it.”
He sent them on their way.
“I hope we’re done, but if you’re not we’ll see each other again. If I don’t see you again, it means you succeeded.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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