Even school administrators were shocked when they analyzed truancy rates for the just-concluded school year.
The district determined that a total of 1,118 students were “habitually truant,” the term assigned to students who don’t have a legitimate or written excuse for ten or more school absences during the year.
That figure means 13 percent of the entire Hobbs student population was truant last year. The highest hooky rate was
recorded at Hobbs High School where just under 21 percent missed school without an excuse. But age apparently has nothing to do with absenteeism. Booker T. Washington, a kindergarten-only school, had a habitual truancy rate of 16 percent – second highest in the district.
“Those numbers were staggering when we sat down and looked at them,” Parent Liaison Eppie Calderon said. “If a kindergarten student is not going to school, it’s not the student’s fault; it’s the parent’s fault. At the high school level, it’s different. The student bares a lot of the responsibility there because sometimes a parent will drop them off at the doorstep and think they are going to class.”
Regardless of where the fault lies, school officials this summer agreed there is a pressing need to get students back in the classrooms - where they belong.
The result is a Truancy Court, which convenes for the first time early in September and combines the resources of the local legal system, police department, juvenile probation office and school administration.
Key to the success of the court – which will at first focus on Hobbs High School truants - are the volunteers who will staff a night court session every two weeks. The primary volunteer is Magistrate Barry Peters, a former school board member familiar with education issues.
“Truancy tends to be problematic within families,” Peters said. “While I’ll be specifically addressing high school truants, my intent is to talk to the parents about the attendance of their other children.”
Peters adds that the formulation of a Truancy Court may help in staving off future court business. “Truancy is a warning sign for delinquent activity,” the judge said. “There’s a correlation with future problems such as being a dropout, drug use and incarceration.”
Calderon said Hobbs is modeling its Truancy Court after a similar court instituted in Carlsbad. Four years after convening, the Carlsbad School District reported a 69 percent drop in its truancy rate.
Under the Hobbs system, students and their parents or guardians will be required to appear in Truancy Court after they have been absent from school without an excuse five times. Principals, school resource officers, HMS truancy officers and juvenile probation officers will also be in court to establish a six-week schedule of intensive monitoring for each student. In addition to being required to sign into classes each day, students will also be required to attend tutoring and be assigned a student mentor. “Those things are meant to improve their attendance, not be punitive,” Calderon said.
If a student successfully complies with the plan and completes community service - another option at Peterson’s disposal – he or she will be dropped from the Truancy Court docket. If a student doesn’t comply, however, and continues to accumulate unexcused absences, he will face the prospect of being transferred to another magistrate court.
Students in that court face the possibility of losing their driver’s licenses for truancy while parents could receive up to six months in jail and a $500 fine. Calderon and Peterson both agree that there’s been a lack of truancy prosecution in the past due to a number of factors – most notably a lack of agency collaboration. “I’ve heard a couple cases in my court but there just doesn’t seem to be a lot of follow through,” Peters said. “With a Truancy Court we’ve got all of the agencies working together, we’ve got them in the same room at the same time and we’ve got them working toward a common goal of making sure a student complies with attendance.”
“Truthfully, this is something that’s going to put teeth in the current system,” Calderon added. “If students participate in Truancy Court and make improvement, then they will achieve the goal of staying in school and learning. But if they continue to miss school, they’ll proceed through the legal system and deal with more serious consequences.”
In an effort to give students and parents fair warning, the school district is publicizing pamphlets and taking strides to insure that the public is aware of the new truancy system.
And principals are spending the weeks leading up to school meeting with habitual truants and their families. Once school begins, parents will be notified by an electronic messaging system of their student’s absence on the day they miss. Finally, the families of students with three absences will be notified by letter of their student’s status.
“Our whole objective is to keep them in school,” HHS Assistant principal Brenda Wilson said. “Kids can’t learn if they are not in the classroom. They are much more likely to fail.”
Based on past history, however, Calderon has already scheduled the first Truancy Court session for early September. “Unfortunately we know that some of these kids will already have five absences by then – even though school doesn’t start until Aug. 15,” he said. “The whole idea is that this is an intervention so we don’t give students to opportunity to fall into their old patterns.”