By Justin Boron
A state law that went into effect on July 1, requiring local government to broaden its approach on truancy, has prompted Clayton and Henry Counties to embrace formal cooperation between the school system, juvenile court, and social work departments in the individual county.
The law stipulates that each county create an interagency committee specifically designed to counteract attendance problems.
Truancy abatement has become increasingly critical to the two school systems where the 2003 average school attendance fell below the 95 percent benchmark required at individual schools for Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).
In 2003, the average attendance rate for all Clayton County schools was 94.1 percent. Henry County school attendance averaged 94.94 percent.
Without 95 percent student attendance for state testing, an individual school cannot receive AYP, which has the potential to open the floodgates of possible penalties related to the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
Both school systems installed truancy programs in 1999 and have showed steady improvement of attendance rates.
James Carter, a Henry County schools family services outreach worker, helped spearhead the school system's truancy program when he said absentee rates were in the double-digits for some students.
"We understand the need for some kind of intervention process," he said.
The interagency effort required by legislation aims to stretch beyond the punishable attributes of a child's delinquency and take into account the range of factors leading to chronic absenteeism, said Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske.
A student's mental health, neglect, or even the rare case of school phobia, in which a child fears the large groups of people at school, may play a larger role in truancy than delinquency, he said.
Lone enforcement of truancy has not done enough to correct the problem, said Luvenia Jackson, Clayton County assistant superintendent for student services.
"The use of truancy officers is an old traditional format," she said. "We're not just looking to punish, but looking for the problem's causes and symptoms."
To determine the nature of the problem, school social workers interview a child after he or she has 10 unexcused absences, Jackson said.
Henry County uses social workers in its current program. But instead of a 10-day cap, the principal of elementary and middle schools decides the point at which a social worker needs to intercede, said Cindy Foster, director of community relations for the Henry County Board of Education.
Help from social workers, Teske said, can lead to the identification of at-home environmental problems such as drug use, that require legal attention.
"We can't let these kids wait around for their parents to quit drugs on their own time," he said.
Parent's found guilty of deprivation can be fined up to $1,000 and could eventually face jail time, he said.
Teske views environmental problems as the driving force behind truancy because he said problems at home can build a child's affinity for delinquency over the years.
"The children often are the way they are because a lot of them are role modeling at home where their parents are not nurturing them," he said.
In attempt to cut off delinquency before it starts, Clayton County has implemented an elementary school initiative that targets parents who allow the their children to consistently miss school.
The initiative permits school social workers to recommend to the Juvenile Courts that the Department of Family and Children Services intercede with an investigation of the family.
The need for a broad review of truancy stems from its pervasive implications on the community and public health, Teske said
"Truancy has lasting effects that are costing us into the adult years," he said.