The Legislature has passed a bill requiring Washington school districts and juvenile courts to establish community truancy boards as a way to keep students in school and out of court.
Skipping too much school in Washington state is illegal, but sending kids to juvenile court for a stern lecture and the threat of detention isn’t working.
What can work is bringing educators, court officials and community experts together to help families overcome the obstacles that are keeping kids out of school, without resorting to formal legal action.
In one Spokane County school district, that kind of collaboration, known as a community truancy board, has helped as many as 82 percent of truant students earn a diploma or GED — 18 percentage points higher than neighboring districts that don’t have such boards. That program, featured in The Seattle Times’ Education Lab last fall, has drawn national interest.
Roughly 70 percent of Washington’s 295 school districts don’t have such boards — or any other truancy program — although that now may change.
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State lawmakers passed a bill this week that requires all school districts and juvenile courts to work together to create community truancy boards by the 2017-18 school year.
Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam — a longtime advocate for such efforts who announced his retirement this week — and Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, worked together to send House Bill 2449 to Governor Jay Inslee’s desk.
Former state Supreme Court Justice Bobbe Bridge said the bill reflects two decades of efforts to find a better way to handle truancy since the 1995 state law requiring school districts to send students and their families to court if students rack up seven unexcused absences in a single month, or 10 in a year.
“We also have learned, based on experience and practice, that community truancy boards work and have some indication that they can be done efficiently without spending a whole lot of money,” said Bridge, founding president and CEO of the Center for Children & Youth Justice, a private nonprofit.
The bill’s original version would have made community truancy boards optional, but lawmakers agreed to make the boards mandatory for districts with more than 200 students, and pushed back the start date to fall 2017 to give courts and school districts time to work out agreements.
“We really want it done well,” Orwall said.
Orwall said that Seattle Times stories on the effectiveness of community truancy boards and discipline practices informed by knowledge of any trauma in children’s lives influenced the legislation.
“Both of them shaped the bill,” she said.
If the bill becomes law, board members and other school and court employees also will be required to learn about approaches to discipline that take into account the trauma some children experience at home because of alcoholism, mental illness, domestic violence and other types of family dysfunction.
To help cover the costs of the boards, the bill calls for allowing districts to use state funds aimed at helping students improve academic skills; more budget details have yet to be worked out.
King County Chief Juvenile Judge J. Wesley Saint Clair supports the idea, if it’s adequately funded. The community truancy approach in Spokane is effective because it gets the community involved in solving the problem, he said.
“It’s one we should copy, absolutely,” Saint Clair said.
Representatives of schools, courts and community organizations typically sit on such boards and help families tackle the root causes of truancy — a last chance to improve attendance before the case is referred to a juvenile court.
But Saint Clair also said that establishing such boards in King County would be a complex undertaking because it would require agreements with 19 school districts, including Seattle Public Schools.
The Bellevue School District has had a truancy board for the past six years, where it sends students if they don’t shape up after a group workshop. And Federal Way started one in 2014.
Seattle Public Schools tried to get community truancy boards going, but had trouble sustaining them for a variety of reasons, including a lack of community support and volunteers.