In an effort to stem school absences, judges with the St. Charles Parish 29th Judicial Court have ordered 106 families to court and will make them sign an agreement that the students will attend school.
Failure to comply with the agreement and go over the state-mandated absence threshold could mean fines or jail time for the offending students and their parents.
Legislation in 2010 drastically cut down on the number of school days students were allowed to miss. In high school, students can only miss five days per class instead of the eight they were allowed before the new law.
Elementary and middle school students are allowed to miss only 10 days per year, down from the previously allowed 17 days per year.
Last year, 85 families were ordered to court before school started because the students had truancy issues in 2011. Judge M. Lauren Lemmon said that put a scare into the students and their families.
“The school system got positive results from it,” she said. “When people got served with the paperwork to attend court they were nervous. We made it clear to them that they weren’t in any trouble and this was an effort to prevent them from getting into trouble.”
Of the 85 students who attended with their parents, 76 percent of those who live on the East Bank did not have truancy issues during the 2012 school year. On the West Bank, 82 percent of those who attended court were able to avoid problems with absences.
The 106 families who will attend court on Aug. 1 will have to sign an agreement that the student must attend school every day with no unexcused absences or tardies while obeying school rules. The parent must agree to comply with state law regarding school attendance or face a possible $250 fine and/or 30 days in jail.
This is just another step the schools and judicial court are taking to make sure students stay on track. After the new law took affect in 2010, a truancy court was created to hear the cases of students who miss too much school or have too many tardies. The court meets on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the school year.
“Our average daily attendance runs about 97.5 percent. It’s the small percentage who don’t come that work us so hard,” Jerry Smith, the director of the schools’ Child Welfare and Attendance Department, said. “Most of our families have a very strong value of education and the ones that are truant are the ones where we try so many different interventions.”
Smith said the court has helped cut down on truancy because judges hold sessions for students twice every week during the school year. The previous program the schools’ used was only once a month.
“We have awesome support from our judges, who were really proactive with this issue,” Smith said. “It has been very effective.”
When Lemmon meets with the families the first time, she tells them that excessive absences could mean jail time or community service for both students and parents. She believes that truancy court had a tremendous impact on school attendance. In fact, attendance has increased overall since the new legislation was introduced. While Lemmon said the goal of truancy court is not to fine someone or put them in jail, it has happened in the past.
“I have given jail time and given community service for parents and their children or just the child,” Lemmon said. “It has been less than a handful of times where that has occurred, but we are serious about people breaking the law.”
Lemmon added that most of the truancy problems occur with freshmen because they face a stricter attendance policy when entering high school. Tardiness and absences also tend to increase in the spring when students are nearing the end of the school year. Still, she is proud of how well the program has worked and hopes a proactive approach again this year will reduce unexcused absences even more.
“We are proud of how well we work with the school system to improve our community and families,” she said. “We hope this will result in less absences and tardies and decrease the need for truancy court appearances.”
Smith said that her office does take many initiatives to prevent truancy and excessive absences, including counseling students, calling parents and making home visits.
However, she is excited to have the support of the parish’s judges.
“This (agreement) will set the tone at the beginning of the school year before students have any absences,” she said. “I am hoping that it will make an impact and show students and parents that the school system and the judicial system are working together to prevent truancy.”