SIKESTON - Sikeston Public Schools students are required to go to school, no ifs, ands or buts about it. And starting this year if they don't, they'll find themselves in Truancy Court.
A Juvenile Court pilot program, Truancy Court was created to reduce truancy and what is described as educational neglect among public school students.
The program is a partnership between the Juvenile Court, the local school system, Missouri Division of Family Services, the county prosecuting attorney, local law enforcement officials, parents and children.
"We've been talking about the problems of attendance whether it be educational neglect or truancy for about a year," Bill Lawson, chief juvenile officer for Scott and Mississippi counties, told Sikeston Board of Education members recently.
Explaining the first programs in the state began in St. Louis and Jackson counties as voluntary programs, Lawson added while results are encouraging officials determined a mandatory system is more effective. "Which is what we've always wanted to do. Our initial plan was if we're going to do this, we're going to take the individuals to court. I don't think anybody's going to argue with the fact that kids need to be in school."
The Truancy Court is based on the belief that all students should attend school every day possible and that adult caretakers should make it a requirement.
The feeling is that elementary students who fail to attend school on a regular basis have a higher tendency to be truant as secondary students, miss essential skills necessary for later school success, lack social skills in comparison with classmates and tend not to perform as well as classmates who do attend regularly.
"We are planning on treating those students who are below the fifth-grade years as victims of educational neglect, as opposed to truancy," Lawson said. "Most third-graders will go to school if they have the opportunity, if their mom gets them up and gets them on the bus."
The Truancy Court believes secondary students who have problem attendance and tardiness have a higher tendency to be discipline problems, not to perform as well as classmates who do attend regularly, exhibit delinquent or criminal behavior and to drop out.
Lawson stressed parents play an important role in a student's feelings toward school attendance. He noted, students who have adult caretakers who activity require attendance and who participate in parent-school contacts are more likely to be successful in school.
Chronic absenteeism and tardiness hampers the inclusion of the student in age-appropriate social activities and often reflects a serious lack of commitment to the student's educational success by the caretaker.
"We want to cut down on the amount of times a parent calls in for a kid simply because the child doesn't want to go to school that day or it's too much trouble for the parent or the parent for whatever reason hasn't gotten the kid up on time," Lawson said.
The Truancy Court Program is a specialized Court Program, with the truant and the parent normally falling under the jurisdiction of the Juvenile Court (educational neglect, lack of supervision or truancy), the prosecuting attorney (parent's violation of compulsory attendance laws, neglect), the school district (truancy) and the Missouri Division of Family Services (neglect, lack of supervision, educational neglect.)
Through the program, Lawson explained the process is to identify the truant students, advise them and their parents that the Truancy Court will be initiated and once the students reach the target number which is three unexcused absences during the school year, a petition will be filed in Juvenile Court taken before Judge David Dolan. If the court finds it has jurisdiction, the juveniles will be placed under the supervision of the Juvenile Office and the case assigned to Commissioner Jim Pinkson.
"Commissioner Pinkston will have court in this very room," Lawson said, referring to the Board of Education office meeting room. "What we intend to do is have court on Wednesday mornings at 7 a.m. to utilize the truant officers. Christ Stinnett, (community service coordinator and a special deputy juvenile officer) and I will also be assigned to the Judicial officer/commissioner working these cases. If the program works the way we think it will work, we will not have to remove the children from their homes. It will simply cut down on the amount of truancy we are experiencing from these kids."
Through the Truancy Court program, the parent is given the opportunity to avoid criminal prosecution by becoming actively involved in the effort to eliminate the educational neglect or truancy.
Truancy Court obtains its authority through the Juvenile Court which establishes jurisdiction over the family and juvenile.
"I have seven school districts in the two counties that I am responsible for," Lawson said. "You all have a good attendance policy, you really do," he told board members. "The problem is that we've got parents out there who call in for a kid when there's no justifiable reason he should be absent.
"Those kids under court jurisdiction will be monitored daily. If it shows up on the list that they're absent, we're going to know that morning why he or she is not in school. We're not going to accept Johnny has a sore tummy. If the school nurse says Johnny is genuinely sick then he can go home or they have to have a doctor's excuse.
"Our goal is to get the kids to go to school and if they're not in school to know why," said Lawson. "Not next week, not two weeks from now, but today."