Woonsocket reinstating truancy court program
Woonsocket reinstating truancy court program
WOONSOCKET - The Woonsocket School Committee voted unanimously last week to request that the district reinstate the once controversial "Truancy Diversion Program," reversing a 2010 decision to eliminate the court to avoid litigation.
It's a decision likely to put a magistrate back in city schools by the end of next month.
"It has an immediate effect as an intervention with students," said Sen. Roger Picard, who served as a truancy officer in city schools for many years.
In a letter dated Aug. 12 and sent to Rhode Island Family Court Chief Judge Haiganush Bedrosian, the committee requested that the program, which provides legals means for schools to handle students with chronic absences, go back into use immediately.
"The school district has a pressing need to reinstitute the Truancy Program: since in or about 2010, the attendance rates of its students have decreased at all levels - elementary, middle and high school," the letter explained. "The committee strongly believes that the Truancy Court program will provide a benefit to the district and the community overall by helping to ensure that its students not only attend school but also receive the rehabilitative and educational services that will both improve attendance and enhance their academic success."
Bedosian responded swiftly. Supt. Patrick McGee told The Breeze that he received word this week that Magistrate Angela Paulhus, who had previously worked with Woonsocket families, will soon be returning to the city.
The decision follows the release of the 2015 Kids Count Factbook, which shows that Woonsocket High School has the lowest rate of attendance of any high school in the state, at just 86 percent. In fact, according to Kids Count data, 45 percent of Woonsocket High School students were absent more than 18 days during the 2013/2014 school year.
Picard and fellow longtime truancy officer Andy Barnes presented data to the committee showing the positive effect the court once had on attendance by city students.
According to the data, attendance rates at the middle school and high school began to dip immediately after the city discontinued the program, and still haven't recovered to their prior levels.
First established in November of 2000, the city's Truancy Court Program worked hand-in-hand with school truancy officers to tackle attendance issues. The courts were historically held in schools, with magistrates meeting directly with parents, often on a weekly basis, and providing immediate action.
Picard says that's part of what made the program so effective.
"Sometimes that immediacy makes people see the importance of education, or at least see the importance of coming to school," he said.
The district ceased its involvement in the program in 2010, after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a class-action lawsuit charging that the state's truancy court system was devoid of due process protections for children. Plaintiffs alleged that the courts were excessively punitive in nature and that the court system disproportionately impacted children who have difficulty attending school or doing their schoolwork because of special education or medical needs.
Woonsocket signed a settlement agreement with the organization agreeing to end its participation in the program. Soon after, the court established new rules aimed at addressing several of the ACLU's issues. The Rhode Island Supreme Court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit as moot in 2012.
But in Woonsocket the damage had already been done, as attendance rates plummeted. At the middle school, attendance was at 91.5 percent during the court's last year of operations, and by 2011 it had dropped below 90. In 2012, it dipped to 89 percent. The high school showed a similar pattern with a two-year drop of nearly 2 percent.
The district may have further escalated the problem by eliminating Picard and Barnes' positions, working without truancy officers for several years. The officers are considered the first line of defense in addressing the root cause of attendance issues, whether they be family problems, health issues or even homelessness, according to Picard.
"The job was to go and figure out what was going on in the student's life," said Picard. "It's not only knowing the families and the community - it's knowing the resources that are available to help those families."
The officers often provided guidance, directing families to local non-profits that help with food or shelter needs, or even to activities that help to keep the students engaged, such as sports programs, Picard said.
"There's a lot of ways to intervene to help these families and get these kids back to school," he said.
In the years where city schools have functioned without either in-house courts or officers, by comparison, families with attendance issues, which could be a sign of major problems in the home, would only be called to the busy family court system in Providence several weeks after major issues were reported.
While many communities in the state have truancy programs, requirements for the officers vary, with some putting the school principal in the position, or even involving local law enforcement. Woonsocket's policy of requiring the individual serving in the role to have a master's degree in social work, however, is telling of the program's objectives, according to Barnes.
"The last thing we want to do is punish someone. We want to find out what's wrong," Barnes said. "We promote attendance; we don't chase truants."
Barnes was brought back on the job at the end of 2012 and Picard would soon follow. But the system, they say, is not as successful without the courts.
"Some people need external controls to do what's right," Barnes said. "The only control we have on students is; you fail if you don't attend. We can't tell a parent to take a kid to the doctor. A court can order a mental health evaluation or a physical."
"Woonsocket took the stance of asking: 'how can we help you resolve these issues?'" Picard added. "Sometimes you can't help, and you need the assistance of the law."