Protocol to crack down on truancy

By Greg Gelpi

The finishing touches are being put on a truancy protocol as several county government agencies are coming together to get students off the street and into school.

"We're just tying up loose ends," Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske said.

The protocol will actually have two parts, one for elementary school students and one for middle and high school students, Teske said. The elementary school portion addresses "those parents depriving their children of education."

"We don't charge the kids because of their age," he said. "They don't have the capacity to be truant."

Many of the older truant students developed their truant habits in elementary school, and the numbers bear that out, Teske said.

"Many of these kids skipping school in the first place in middle school and high school had poor attendance in elementary school," Teske said.

Last school year, the Clayton County school system reported that on average 94.1 percent of students were in attendance at school. In elementary schools, 95.9 percent of students were at school, and the numbers declined in middle school and were even less in high school.

Arnold Elementary School had the highest attendance figures at 96.8 percent, and Fountain Elementary School had the lowest at 94.8 percent for elementary schools, according to the school system. For middle schools, Mundy's Mill Middle School had the highest attendance with 96.3 percent and Morrow Middle School had the lowest with 93.4 percent.

According to figures released by the school system, 90.4 percent of students attended high school. Of the regular high schools in the system, Forest Park High School reported the lowest attendance at 87.4 percent and Lovejoy High School reported the highest at 92.7 percent.

Currently, a letter is sent home for students with five unexcused absences, Teske said, and the new protocol calls for parents to be brought in for a meeting after that.

Although the committee hasn't decided on the number of unexcused absences that will result in this meeting, Teske said it would probably be between seven and 10. The "educational workshop" will make parents aware of the law and of the consequences of not getting their children to school.

After 12 to 15 days, the protocol will require a juvenile court complaint be filed against the parents, he said.

"The best protocol is to seek to educate first and weed out those who can correct their problems," Teske said, adding that a "great number of parents" will correct their problems early on.

It's a "very serious statement" when parents reject the resources of the court system and turn down multiple opportunities to correct truant behavior, Teske said.

"That's when we have to get their attention in a very serious way and take their freedom away and lock them up for a bit," he said.

Counties must have a protocol in place by June that assembles a committee of various government agencies to collaboratively address the problems of truancy.

"The purpose of the committee shall be to ensure coordination and cooperation among officials, agencies and programs involved in compulsory attendance issues, to reduce the number of unexcused absences from school and to increase the percentage of students present to take tests which are required to be administered under the laws of this state," the law states.

Although the law requiring the protocol passed in the 2004 legislative session of the Georgia General Assembly, Teske said Clayton County is ahead of the game and has been using a similar protocol for about three years.