Woonsocket reinstating truancy court program

Woonsocket reinstating truancy court program

High school has lowest attendance rate in the state

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."


Especially in a city with no jobs.

But, there are jobs in Woonsocket, no one wants to work, see the recent story regards Jim's Deli, he had to close because he could not find people who wanted to work, check with other businesses, you may find the same story.
This is what needs to be fixed, teaching people a work ethic.

Woonsocket needs 100's of good paying jobs, not just a few deli jobs. I saw that article too, i read it with a certain degree of skepticism.

sinkhole at Dowling Village and all those stores will come back to Woonsocket.

I heard that the new owners of the Diamond Hill plaza are trying to lure the Outlet Factory Stores to come like they have in Wrentham MA and North Conway NH.

But those jobs are typically low-paying part time gigs. This isn't the kind of development that Roger Picard and the bloated WED requires, sad to say. Hope this doesn't cost too much, ole Roger is the WED's representative in Providence!

No jobs? What are you basing that on? Did you go to Monster and Indeed? Or are you just talking out of your butt? Also, are you talking about the city itself, or are you using vicinity? Can someone from Woonsocket drive 12 mins to EMC, or is that ridiculous? Doesn't CVS dis have a revolving door of job hires?

I challenge your logic and credibility.

See any now hiring signs? See any new manufacturing? I see empty lots, empty store fronts and the highest taxes in the State. I've looked on those sites, you've got to leave the City. Zero opportunity here (unless you want a low wage, part-time job). Hopefully, anyone who graduates from Woonsocket High School has the smarts to get out. I challenge your obviously biased opinion, post some good job opportunities on here. You know the kind, they're the ones that enable you to have a family, buy a house here and pay the ever increasing taxes.

That is wonderful news for the school district. Making parents and students accountable for their attendance in a district with such a high absentee rate can only be a positive.

Dude, I was driving down Park Ave earlier and noticed AT LEAST 3 help wanted signs. This was before you posted your crap comment. Try it. Literally, drive down Park ave and count the ads. But, of course, you will spin it in some cynical direction to discredit those employment requests.

I'm so glad they are reinstating the truancy court. How can a child learn if they are not in school? Too often we hear of kids staying out of school to care for younger siblings because the mother can't get out of bed! Now, someone will be accountable! Good job!

Not seeing any specifics here...types of jobs you can make a decent living on? Or are they low wage "crap"?

None of this matters! Unfortunately we are trying to fix a problem on the wrong end. Children should learn to go to school and strive for well paying jobs from their parents. Woonsocket lacks core family values and that is the big problem. I guarantee if a study was performed on children who have poor attendance also have poor family structure. If a child is getting up in the morning to get ready for school and their lazy self entitled parents are still in bed with no drive to make themselves better. Where in the world will the child learn to be better? It all starts at home! So bring on the baggers at Stop and Shop, the Job Lot cashiers and thrift store sorters because that is all Woonsocket is creating.

Google CVS Corporate Jobs...filter on location Woonsocket, RI...there are at least one hundred jobs posted, all of which, by the nature of the job titles, provide people with opportunity to make a decent living. The jobs are there....the skills may not be...but the jobs are there.

Why are we creating yet another bureacracy ( a truancy court)? Shouldn't these scholars with chronic absenteeism simply be assigned to the Charter Schools for fixing? What am I missing?

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