The Truancy Reduction Project (TRP), available to all schools in all Adams County districts since the fall of 1999, is a voluntary alternative to the regular court system for truant students. Only three of Adams County’s five districts ever participated actively, two of which continue to use the program. Prior to the Truancy Reduction Project, none of the districts filed many truancy cases because they felt the court, lacking information about the students’ problems and without tough sentencing options, was ineffective. Changes that have occurred in districts’ approaches to truancy are important because a truant child first passes through the school and district system. Only after failing at that level is a court action filed. Thus, the cases that are passed on to the Truancy Case Manager (TCM) are a function of the diligence with which districts enforce attendance laws, the success they have with their own programs, and their willingness to participate in the TRP. Although this study focuses on the two most actively participating districts - Commerce City and Mapleton - a discussion of all the district contexts is included below, followed by a description of the Truancy Reduction Project itself.
District 14 – Commerce City: At about the same time the court was revamping its truancy procedures, complimentary, but independent, actions were taken within District 14. In 1997, the district hired a new Director of Legal Council who launched a campaign to reduce the incidence of suspension, expulsion and truancy. At that point, the district had the highest truancy and expulsion rates in the state. Although the state provides the legal definition of truancy, it is, and always has been, up to school officials to determine when to invoke the law by initiating court proceedings. Prior to the TRP, District 14 rarely sent truants to court because school officials viewed it as a) costly in terms of lawyers’ fees and school personnel time, and b) ineffective, because the Adams County court, which was not permitted to incarcerate youths for truancy alone, had no meaningful sanction. When they did file proceedings, they hired an outside lawyer. They spent little money this way, however, since they filed on few students. The monetary cost of truancy to the district prior to truancy reformation came primarily in the form of lost per student revenue from the state.
The district’s new attorney hired part-time attendance liaisons for each school in 1997. Their sole task was to monitor student attendance and correct attendance problems. These positions were made full-time in 1999. Each liaison currently receives a salary of $13,000 to $17,000 a year. Beginning in 1998, the district lawyer took over the legal work involved with sending truancy cases to court, rather than hiring an outside lawyer.
When the attendance liaison determines a child’s absences are excessive, he or she first sends a letter to the parents or guardian. If problems persist, he/she draws up an attendance improvement plan, and in about 40% of the cases, makes a home visit to talk with the child and parents. If problems still persist, the paperwork is sent to the district attorney’s office, and passed on to a retired LAPD officer, described as an imposing figure whom people tend to take seriously. He visits the home, and decides what type of hearing, either "in-district" or "interagency," is appropriate. Most cases receive an "in-district" hearing in the attorney’s office. The parent(s) and child, the school attendance liaison, the district lawyer, and sometimes another school representative (a high school dean, a special education teacher, counselor, or mental health evaluator), attend the meeting. The parents and child are informed of the law, and another attendance plan is drawn up. They are informed that if attendance is not improved, the district will file court proceedings. If the family is determined to be in a crisis situation, for example a borderline case of dependency and neglect, an interagency meeting is held instead. The purpose of the meeting is the same, but more agencies are represented at the meeting, for example, diversion, probation, and/or social service providers. These meetings are fairly expensive in terms of personnel costs, but require no cash outlays.
If these efforts on the part of the public schools are ineffective, and the child is under 14 years of age, the district files a court proceeding for truancy. If the child is 14 years or older, efforts are abandoned because by the time the court is able to process the case and do anything about the problem, the child will be close to 16, at which point school is no longer mandatory. Furthermore, interviewees in all four districts have unanimously reported that the older the child, the more intractable the problems tend to be, and the less effective the interventions. In 2000-2001 District 14 handled 216 cases of truancy. Of these, 100, or 46%, improved their attendance. Of the others, 93 were sent to the Truancy Case Manager and 23 to the magistrate.
The district has felt several effects of the combined truancy efforts, mostly positive. The biggest effect, in the opinion of the district’s attorney, is that standardized test scores have improved. Teaching practices have been modified as well during the same time, however, and the effects cannot be disentangled. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that improved attendance among enrolled children can only raise the score; if a registered child does not take the test, he or she receives a zero, which is then factored into the school’s overall grade. Even a poor score is better than no score at all. In today’s high-stakes testing environment, this is a politically important outcome for schools.
District 14 schools have also been able to increase the sum of their per pupil revenue from the state. Once the district has filed a court proceeding against a truant student, whether or not that student participates in the Truancy Reduction Program, the school can legally claim state revenue for that student. At $5,500 per child, the recaptured revenue for students who were not in school during the count window totaled $286,000 in 2000-20001 and $386,500 in 2001-2002. A less desirable effect is the significant worsening of overcrowding. Portables are being added in many schools, but even at that, class sizes are too big.
District 1 – Mapleton: There are six elementary schools, two middle schools, one high school, and one alternative high school in District 1. As in Commerce City, Mapleton did not generally send truant students to court before the TRP was initiated. In 2000-2001 the district rewrote their truancy procedures in light of the new court alternative. The new system dictates that after three unexcused absences the school mails a form letter to the parents of the unexcused student, and after six absences another letter goes out. After ten absences a problem solving meeting is supposed to be held at the school, with school staff and the child’s parents. In reality, practice still varies by school, and particularly if the student’s grades are good, the number of absences can be closer to twenty before a meeting is held. The District Interagency Coordinator and Attendance Officer reported that when they first initiated these steps, one of the middle schools took it very seriously – so seriously that teachers began complaining that kids who had not been there previously were causing problems in the classroom.
If, after these school-level interventions, a child’s attendance problems persist, an interagency meeting is held. Attending these meetings may be the Interagency Coordinator (who is also the district attendance officer), a school administrator, social service representatives, the school resource officer (a police officer based at the school who is paid half by the school district and half by the police department), a mental health worker, probation, juvenile diversion, and someone from the LINK (a juvenile assessment center for the county). These meetings last half an hour. They are held in blocks of four at a time, once a month. There is a significant bottleneck at this phase of the process. The number of meetings is dictated not by the needs of the student body, but by available resources. The Interagency Coordinator prioritizes cases, and tends to focus on the younger children first. In 2000-2001, the Interagency Committee met with 45 of the 65 youths on their list. In 1999-2000 the figures were similar; they met with 45 of 66 referred children.
The district program is fairly successful. In 2000-01, 108 of the 189 students (57%) reviewed during school and Interagency Committee meetings subsequently improved their attendance. Thirty-three percent of the 45 students sent to Interagency Committee meetings improved their attendance. However, if the interagency meeting is not successful, they file a court proceeding on children under 14 years of age, and send them to the Truancy Reduction Project. If the child is over 14, they refer him or her to the LINK (the Adams County Juvenile Assessment Center), and allow one more chance before filing in court. Thirteen cases were referred to the court.
Since 1998-99, District 1 has filed 24 cases with the Truancy Reduction Project, and seven direct filings with the court. They guessed that the program had been successful with about 25% of those students. Although not an overwhelming rate, the district staff said the greatest benefit of the Truancy Reduction Program is likely to be the deterrent effect on students who now know there are consequences of chronic truancy. The superintendent has not chosen to seek state funding for students with active truancy cases who were not counted during the student count window, though they have discussed doing so.
District 28J – Aurora: The Aurora Public School District spans two counties. About one quarter of the schools lie in Adams County, while about three quarters are in Arapahoe County. Since truancy is dealt with by the county court systems, the district must accommodate two systems for handling truant students. Furthermore, it is not the address of the school that determines which system must be used, but the address of the student in question. Some school boundaries cross county lines, and enrollment is fairly open within the district, so each school must be prepared to work with both systems. The Arapahoe County court is among the tougher in the area. The court is permitted to send truant students to detention, and does so. Both school administrators and students are aware of the different outcomes of truancy, depending on where a student lives.
The district spends a considerable amount of money dealing with truancy. The figure has almost doubled from $70,000 in 1995-96 to $130,000 in 1999-2000. No breakdown is available, however, by county. When Adams County began the TRP, Aurora Public Schools made use of the program. In past years they sent a total of 62 students to the TCM; however, the district found little improvement in the attendance of those students. Because of the TCM’s case load, they were displeased with the length of time it took for her to get an initial meeting with a student. Although there are no fees associated with the TRP, it requires administrator time, for which the district’s Coordinator of Organizational Support, who is responsible for student discipline, sees little payoff. Accordingly, he has counseled schools not to file on truant students who live in Adams County, and no filings have been made since October of 2001. In the Coordinator’s opinion, it is not a problem with the competency or procedures of the TCM, but with the numbers of students she must work with, and the fact that the magistrate cannot incarcerate students for truancy alone.
District 50 – Westminster: Westminster is in the process of changing the way it handles truants, again because the Adams County Court has become more effective in dealing with cases. Prior to the initiation of the Truancy Reduction Project, Westminster expelled habitually truant students who had accrued two to three times the ten absences that constitute the legal definition of truancy. In 1999-2000 they expelled approximately six students for truancy. (In the transition period of 2000-2001 they simply monitored students’ attendance, but neither expelled nor initiated legal proceedings against them.) This academic year they began sending truants to court. By February 2001 they had sent one student directly to a court hearing and a handful to the Truancy Reduction Project. Although the district incurred no court costs in the pre-project period, expelling a student is not free. The district is still legally required to educate expelled children; parents who want a tutor can request one for up to ten hours a week, 36 weeks a year, at a cost of $13 per hour. The maximum expenditure per student would then be $4,680. Because of the few cases sent to the TRP so far, and the transitional character of current district practices, Westminster is not included in the cost/benefit analysis of this report.
District 12 – Northglenn: The Northglenn district staff was displeased with the functioning of the Truancy Reduction Project in its initial period, due to the length of time it took to get a truant child a meeting with either the counselor or the magistrate. The Director of Alternative and Intervention Services (AIS), who is new to the district this year, reported being told that only one of the 30 students sent to the TRP in its first year showed improvement. Nonetheless, the process required court costs and principals’ time. As a result, they hired their own hearing officers and developed their own program. Although they are happy with their success rate, the AIS Director plans to reevaluate the costs and benefits of the two programs at the end of the year. Northglenn is another school district that spans two counties, Adams County and the newly-formed Broomfield County. Using their own program avoids the complexity of dealing with two administrative centers.
Truancy Reduction Project (TRP): The TRP was initiated by the Adams County court in the fall of 1999, and had been in operation for almost three years at the time of this writing. The program is open to truant students 14 years of age and under in all Adams County schools, but it is not the only avenue for dealing with truancy. Schools, generally under the advice of their district offices, choose whether or not to offer the TRP to their students as an alternative to court. (The program is not available to truant children 14 and over because they are so close to the 16-year cutoff for mandatory schooling.) The annual program budget is just under $50,000. The money is used to pay the salary and benefits of a full-time, bilingual Truancy Case Manager (TCM) who works with the truant students and their families. The court pays for operating expenses, like mileage and office space, out of its regular budget. For the first three years of operation, the State Department of Justice funded the program. As spring of 2002 approached, most key players were convinced that continuation funding would not be found, and that the program would not resume in the fall of 2002. Asking districts to pay for the program was discussed, but those districts that do not make use of the program were understandably not interested in paying for it. By a hair’s breadth, the Colorado Department of Justice renewed the funding for the 2002-2003 school year.
The TRP is a court-run project, so when a school refers a student to the TRP, it is a court action. The first step in the process is called the Initial Hearing, during which the Truancy Case Manager informs the student and his/her family of the law and describes the program requirements. The student and family are given the option either to enter the Truancy Reduction Project or go through the regular court process. In almost all cases, the family opts for the TRP. Judging by their choices, students and their families are unambiguously glad to have the TRP option.
School staff, parents, and the child must complete extensive questionnaires about the student’s school participation, behavior, family history, and extracurricular activities. The student questionnaire is particularly extensive, and includes questions on friendships, hobbies, family relations, relations with school staff, job information, drug and alcohol use, and contacts with the police department. Equipped with the completed questionnaires and notes taken during the Initial Hearing, the TCM develops a personalized Family Treatment Plan for improving the child’s school attendance. The plan, to which the family must agree and sign, is reviewed at the second meeting. The TCM monitors the attendance reports that the school is required to submit on all participating students.
Program requirements are not insignificant for a student who is accustomed to frequent truancy and or tardiness, and who likely has difficulty with schoolwork. The student must have no unexcused absences for twelve weeks. If a child is sick, the parent must provide a doctor’s note or have the child visit the school nurse. Merely a phone call from a parent is not sufficient to excuse an absence. The student’s grades must be no less than a "C", and they must improve in at least two classes. After-school tutoring and Saturday school are available to help meet these goals, although they are not part of the TRP. At the end of three months of perfect attendance and acceptable grades, the juvenile magistrate presides over a graduation ceremony in court. About half of the students who enter the program complete it successfully.
If, however, the student has an unexcused absence during the three-month program, the child is said to "disrupt" – in other words, fail. An advisement hearing before the magistrate is then scheduled, and the regular court process is initiated. At the advisement hearing, the court issues an order to compel attendance, and may request a review hearing for a later date. If the student denies the unexcused absence that provoked the advisement hearing, a "hearing on the merits" is scheduled. If the student continues to miss school, the district initiates contempt proceedings. For these students, the court process can be lengthy and costly, entailing many court appearances.
The role of the Truancy Case Manager is to give families whatever support they need in order to get their children to school. The TCM keeps a file of all service organizations available in the county, and frequently makes referrals to low cost health clinics, mental health service providers, or substance abuse clinics, for example. She also follows up on whether the families have acted on her referrals. She works as an advocate for the family with the school, to make sure the student receives all the services to which he or she is entitled. Her job is to be supportive, rather than punitive, and to always keep the child’s best interests at heart. However, the information uncovered during her interactions with families has led her to file several dependency and neglect cases.