Brookings-Harbor High School could have a truancy court in place as early as November, after the Brookings City Council agreed to put an ordinance giving truancy laws teeth on its Sept. 24 meeting agenda.
The state has laws requiring students attend school, and the school district has protocols addressing those who ditch class, but there’s no way to enforce either because a truancy court has yet to be established by city ordinance, said Mark Hebert, the assistant principal.
“My goal is to communicate what’s most important: Every kid should have an education,” Hebert told the city council in a workshop Monday afternoon. “When they are deprived of that gift, it is a crime. And you can’t give it to them if the kids aren’t there.”
Brookings-Harbor High School has a graduation rate of about 81 percent, but it hit a low of 63 percent only four years ago, Hebert said.
He plans to concentrate on the 102 students — 23 percent — who miss more than 15 percent of classes, whether for a chronic illness, apathy, family challenges, homelessness and other issues.
Of those 102 students, 20 missed more than 15 percent of their classes. Another 25 kids missed 20 percent, or 36 days worth, of classes. Thirty-five missed 30 percent — 54 days, Hebert said.
“That’s massive,” he said. “Those are powerful numbers. The community needs to take ownership of these kids, get them back on track.”
Another 15 students missed 40 percent, or 72 days, of classes, and the remaining seven missed half, or 90 days of school.
Last year, truancy resulted in 38 students falling out of their year, meaning they didn’t earn enough credits to advance to the next grade. Of those, Hebert said, 19 lost a full year of school — and 16 dropped out of school altogether.
“You multiply that by four and that’s the 18 percent we’re missing in our graduation rate,” he said. “We want to support kids in every way — if they just show up. Then powerful things can happen.”
He said school counselors have talked to students until they’re “blue in the face,” but students merely shrug because there are no repercussions.
Kids grin and say there’s no reason to come to school,” Hebert related. “They say, ‘School’s not important to me and you can’t do anything about it.’ They were pulling their hair out.”
No longer, Hebert said.
Hebert plans to treat each student’s situation with compassion — but he’s carrying a big stick.
If a student has an unexcused absence, school officials make two phone calls home to alert the parents. The next step is a notification letter to the parents and, if the student misses eight half-days, or 16 blocks of classes, a conference is scheduled to find the source of the truancy problem.
The “truancy clock” is reset to zero, and If the student again misses eight half-days, officials will “step it up” and craft an attendance agreement with the truancy judge.
“This has been really good,” Hebert said. “We’ve already got one kid back into football and another is going to work (to attend class) so he can get into basketball. And we’ve had great conversations with mom to roll them out of bed in the morning.”
Sometimes, the solution is that simple, Hebert said. He’s purchased more than a few alarm clocks for students in his day. And other times, it involves ensuring the parents themselves understand the urgency of the situation and force their child to get to school.
Some students might need counseling or other special considerations — Hebert’s willing to do whatever it will take, if it gets that student back in class.
If the youth continues to ditch class, the severity of the intervention increases with the issuance of a Class 3 misdemeanor citation — personally served, not mailed, to the parents. And the kid, his or her parents and Hebert go to the judge — not on school grounds, but in the Municipal Courtroom on Elk Drive in Brookings. There, the family has three options:
• Comply with the school standards and attend classes — and prove it over the next 30 days,
• Plead guilty and pay a fine of up to $500 — the first $61 is non-negotiable as it goes to the state and Curry County or,
• Request a trial.
“It is a formal proceeding,” the legal notice reads. “Testimony is sworn, parties may call and cross-examine witnesses, and rules of evidence apply.”
Those who fail to appear will be fined, as well.
The fines might not cover the estimated $1,500 cost to conduct court, and the city wants the school district to help figure out how to balance that equation. Judge Gary Milliman — the city’s former city manager — has agreed to work the first year for free.
Hebert also warned the council that they might see a bit of “blowback” from parents.
“We support the school district in whatever decisions are best for the district,” said Booster Club vice-president Heather Serna.
Ultimately, Hebert said, the process is not punitive, but corrective.
“I want to support the family to change behavior,” he said. “I worry for (truants’) future. (If I have to), I’m going to have mom come to school all day long — and I hope she wears the pink curlers and I hope she wears her bathrobe.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .