Randolph County Schools is taking a new approach to help battle truancy problems in the school system that includes taking parents to circuit court if their child has 25 or more unexcused absences.
Superintendent of Schools Dr. James Phares and Attendance Director Lynn Proudfoot are taking steps that could put parents in court if their student misses too much school. Information provided by the school system shows students having more than 25 unexcused absences.
"The expectation when I was growing up was that you are going to go to school," Phares said. "There are mandatory attendance laws. There has been a change in the family structure. I think we are dealing with a more transient population. They (families) are moving more, so they do not get vested in one place. Parents are not providing the necessary support for kids to go to school."
Phares provided The Inter-Mountain with data showing how many unexcused absences are occurring at each of the county schools. At the elementary level, the data shows that each elementary school had at least 40 percent of the student body have one to five unexcused absences.
Beverly, Midland and North elementary schools all had students that missed 25 or more days of school. Two students at Bevelerly Elementary School missed 25 days or more of school and both North and Midland elemenatary had one student each. At the middle school level, Elkins Middle School was the only school to have students miss more than 25 days of school unexcused with 16.
Elkins High School had 61 students with 25 or more unexcused absences and Tygarts Valley High School had five.
"This is the first year we have collected the data this way," Phares said. "Kids do not make the decision to not go to school. These are unexcused absences."
Phares explained that once a student has five unexcused absences, a letter is sent to the parents. Once the child has 10 unexcused absences, Proudfoot sends an "Attendance Notification" to the parents.
"It notifies them that they (the parents) are committing a misdemeanor," she said.
If a student has more than 10 unexcused absences, Proudfoot files a petition and the parent will receive a summons to Randolph County Magistrate Court.
"In magistrate court they do not have the ability to place them on probation," Proudfoot said. "They receive a fine that is suspended and given 60 days to get their kids back in school."
Phares said once a student has 25 or more unexcused absences, a new step is taken. The school system has the option to file a complaint with the West Virginia Division of Health and Human Resources for educational neglect.
"Due to a change in the law, we can now file for educational neglect without going to the DHHR," Phares said.
Proudfoot added that the school system has filed one of the petitions this school year and another was filed by DHHR.
"There is not a particular number of absences that is a threshold, only if the truancy continues," Proudfoot said. "When students are 12 years old, a juvenile petition can be filed against them."
She explained that when a petition is filed against a student, a multidisciplinary team approach is taken. Proudfoot said the prosecuting attorney, DHHR and court system all participate on the team.
"We refer students to counseling and learn what the underlying reason is they are not attending," Proudfoot said. "Students usually get put on probation. The benefit of the team approach is we can find out the underlying problem. Most kids have other judicial issues."
Proudfoot said the school system is in the beginning stages of taking parents to circuit court. She said magistrate court has been effective, but the behavior has not been changed.
She said of the three cases that have gone to circuit court, one parent with a first offense was given six months of unsupervised probation. A parent with a second offense was given one-year of unsupervised probation. The third case was deemed educational neglect and the children were removed from the home because the parent failed a random drug test.
Randolph County Circuit Court Judge Jaymie Wilfong said it is very important for students to attend school.
"We know that for a child to have a good educational foundation, they have to be in school," she said. "The school system catches a lot of abuse and neglect. When these kids are not in school they do not have that safety net."
She explained that truancy with younger students could be an indicator that there is some form of neglect taking place.
"With a younger child, the responsibility for the kid to be in school is with the parents," she said. "We know that if these kids are going to have a decent education that they need to be in school."
Wilfong said truancy has always been a crime, the new approach brings the cases to her.
"It is going to be brought to me and I am going to monitor it very closely," she said. "We monitor our truancy cases. They have to come in every 90 days."
She said any absences in excess of five unexcused is considered truancy.
"We have a real good network of communication with the school system and prosecutor's office," Wilfong said. "Sometimes truancy is just truancy, but it could be an indicator that something else is going on."
Phares and Proudfoot said some of the reasons students are not going to school is they are staying up too late at night and not getting up in the morning, and they lack parental support.
"Too many parents say it is OK to not to go," she said.
Phares said if students are sick they should not go to school.
"The alarming thing is that in kindergarten through fifth grade, those kids are not choosing not to go to school," Phares said.
Proudfoot added, "They are learning that school is optional."
Phares said one of the consequences of students not going to school is that there is an alarming rate of drug abuse. Proudfoot added that random drug testing is one of the probation requirements for students and parents.
"There is a natural connection with drug abuse by the parents or the students," Phares said.
He said parents are called everyday when a student is absent and one county principal even makes personal calls to the parents.
"If the kids are not in school, we cannot teach them," he said. "We do an awful lot of enabling because we let them make up their work. We have teachers doing a lot of re-teaching because kids are not there. They are extremely frustrated with it. We want parents to understand how debilitating it (not being in school) is for the students to learn."