Brookings-Harbor High School students who routinely ditch class could find themselves in front of a judge, if city officials approve an ordinance to enact state truancy laws.

The Brookings City Council, school administrators and county Juvenile Department officials will discuss the issue in a 4 p.m. workshop next Monday at city hall.

The idea was broached by Mark Hebert, the new assistant principal at Brookings-Harbor High School, as part of what he’s witnessed to be a successful program to address truancy and its underlying issues.

Brookings-Harbor High School could use it.

More than 60 high school students last year did not attend 25 percent of the school year last year, and 20 of them “just disappeared,” Hebert said, and will not receive a high school education.

“We have a chronic problem here,” Hebert told the council at its regular meeting Monday night. “It’s going to take a lot involved to reach those 60 kids. But my strong hope is that after working in intervention for 20 years with the toughest kids, it’ll work. I’m excited to be part of this effort to compassionately direct students to success.”

Brookings-Harbor High School’s graduation rates have improved, to 77 percent, from a low of 63 percent four years ago. Officials project this past year’s rate will be 81 percent.

Hebert wants it to be even higher, and that, he said, starts with regular school attendance.

The problem

Hebert told the council if a student misses class twice a month, they end up missing an entire month of schooling for the year.

The district has policies in place to address truancy, but the interventions and discussions with family don’t seem to have worked well. And when they fail — anywhere, not just in Brookings — officials tend to wash their hands of the child.

“The (message the students) heard is they’re allowed to miss school,” Hebert said. “We should not deprive kids of our high expectations. And we should empower parents to tell kids they have to go.”

Hebert, who started with the district just over a week ago, has worked in truancy intervention and counseling, sometimes with some of the toughest teens who often lived in poor and violent school districts.

He’s found that being compassionate and firm, instead of hard-nosed and punitive, gets kids back into class and on track to graduate with a solid high school education.

“It is one of the greatest gifts a parent and community can give students,” he said. “But to be educated, they really have to come to school.”

How it works

The state already has laws addressing truancy, including citations — they’re Class 3 misdemeanors — and court. And BHHS has established intervention policies. The only thing missing is a city ordinance putting teeth into them.

“A lot of pieces go into this,” he said. “I’m adding more support, more communication with parents that their kids are missing school.”

The degree of intervention determines the degree of truancy.

First, they are reminded they are required to attend school. If they miss 15 percent of their classes, a “resource meeting” is held with the parents and student to determine why they are missing class.

“Some are averse to school; they just don’t like it,” Hebert said. “Some feel they can’t come to school — some are chronically ill or have emotional problems that cause them anxiety.”

Part of the data collection will include identifying those students.

“We don’t want to punish anyone who has a chronic illness that affects their education,” Hebert said.

“Sometimes the family is struggling. Sometimes the family is very poor,” he continued. “We need to provide the resources to address the basic issues — do they need an alarm clock? I’ve given alarm clocks to students for years. We try to figure (who’s) in their lives: parents, a brother, a regular ride to school (that supports school attendance.)”

If a student misses 16 classes in four weeks — BHHS students attend four classes per day — a resource meeting is held and the student is given a second chance to change what they’re doing.

And if they don’t, they can be hit with a citation.

Court of compassion

Hebert sees no reason to suspend students from school for ditching school; the irony is not lost on him. Fines don’t work, either, particularly for families who don’t have much money. Hebert does know, however, of school districts that hit their truant students with fines of up to $1,000.

He wants to address the entire problem with compassion.

When the truant student faces a judge — former City Manager Gary Milliman has offered his services — they craft an attendance agreement; the student’s signature implies they will comply with attendance laws.

The city also gets involved because a truancy court would be operated under the municipal system.

“We want something really compassionate,” Hebert said. “Firm but compassionate. We’re not bullying anyone, not trying to hurt these families. I want to parents to turn to their kids and say, ‘It’s time that you go to school. You gotta go.’

“I don’t like kids falling through the cracks. We want to give something to parents so they can say, ‘You gotta go to school or we have to go to court and that would really, really suck.’”

Hebert said parents and teachers need to instill in students’ minds that school is vitally important — and that adults should never give up on the kids.

“I refuse to allow students to fail,” he said. “I’m not the Pontius Pilate kind of man who … washes his hands of them. Every kid needs a champion. They need direction, they need adults, a city, a family and people who don’t give up on them.”

He got a taste of that on a visit to Lincoln Alternative School in Walla Walla, Washington, whose success was featured in the movie “Paper Tigers.”

A teen with whom he spoke there was emphatic when she explained that kids there just don’t ditch class.

“She said, ‘We never miss school,” Hebert said. “‘They don’t let us miss. You have to go to court if you miss.’ They just accept the fact. You roll out of bed, get dressed, get on the bus and go to school. That’s their life.”

The reaction

Hebert warned the city council that, if a truancy court is created — and he’s received positive feedback from those to whom he’s proposed the idea — there “might be some blowback” from students and teachers.

“I will get it, too,” he said. “Some people will find it hard.”

But when he mailed a letter to families outlining the program, a former BHHS student posted his thoughts on Facebook.

“This kid, he was just a terror when he was here,” Hebert said. “Even faculty were worried about this kid; he was even a little dangerous. He came on Facebook and said he wished this had been there when he was (at BHHS); he would’ve been a better student.”

City councilors who came of age in a different era said their attendance was enforced by fear, not compassion.

“The community I grew up in, the children had a great fear of the truancy officer,” said Councilor Ron Hedenskog. “I personally never missed a day of school without an excuse — a good excuse — because I was afraid of the truancy officer.”

“My parents were really good,” said Councilor Bill Hamilton. “If I tried to stay home sick to avoid a test, my stepfather said, ‘Oh, fine. Don’t go to school. I have 12 sheets of sheetrock to hang, and afterward, you can go get the homework you missed.’ All of a sudden, I felt a lot better.”

Hebert said he’s excited about getting the program underway.

“I’ve heard so many negative comments about this school,” he said. “But what I’ve seen, this is a great school. It surprised me to find such a passionate group of teachers wanting to support the students. I was very, very impressed.”

And the kids aren’t so bad, either, he said.

“There’s such a diverse group of kids here, and for some, things are easy,” he said. “Others are under-resourced, under-supported, kids from poverty. Their needs are real. And (they need to hear), ‘We’re not going to give up on you. We believe in you. School is the most important thing in your life.’ That’s a crazy message for a lot of teenagers. We have to convince them that this gift of education really matters.”