Juvenile Court Judge Jennifer McKinzie said she hopes the appointment of three full-time juvenile judges and their renewed partnership with the Richmond County school system will help solve truancy issues that have plagued Augusta schools.
The judges, whose terms begin Monday, will meet again with school officials Oct. 19 to see how school social workers and counselors can collaborate with court interventions to stop absenteeism.
In the past, she said, the three juvenile court judges on the Augusta Judicial Circuit worked part-time, which made it difficult for the court to include truancy cases with its other responsibilities.
“I think there’s going to be changes,” McKinzie said Friday. “There’s going to be good changes. It’s not going to happen overnight, but since we’re meeting with the school board … I think there’s going to be changes in the truancy rates next year.”
In the 2010-11 school year, between 1 percent and 28 percent of students at Richmond County schools were chronically absent – defined by the state Department of Education as missing at least 15 days of school, excused or unexcused. Nineteen of the 56 Richmond County schools are above the state average of 10 percent.
Overall, the school system’s chronic absenteeism rate was 11 percent, 1 percentage point higher than the state average.
The school system’s overall truancy rate of 22 percent in 2011 was more than twice as high as the state average of 10 percent. Truant students are those with more than five unexcused absences.
Superintendent Frank Roberson said the school system is diligent in enforcing truancy protocol and making home visits but that its efforts are no substitute for parent involvement.
“The real key to this issue is at the parental level in terms of resolving it,” he said. “One thousand years ago, when I was a boy, that was in place – aunts, uncles and grandparents and community people were very much engaged in the
family, especially where there were young children. We stopped talking about that, and we stopped doing that.”
According to state law, the chief Superior Court judge of every district was required to form an attendance committee in 2005. It was to include representatives of the school board, law enforcement, county board of health, Juvenile Court judges and about 10 others. The Richmond County committee was formed in 2005, but members have not met twice a year to discuss attendance issues and solutions, as the law requires.
Some who are required to be part of the committee, including Sheriff Ronnie Strength, were not aware it existed.
At the district level, the truancy protocol requires that a school social worker make a home visit after an elementary or middle school pupil’s fourth unexcused absence and after a high school student’s fifth one.
If the problem persists after social workers intervene, the school system must refer the student to the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The department is then responsible for making referrals to Juvenile Court, though that step is seldom taken, data show.
In the 2010-11 school year, the Richmond County school system referred 199 cases to Juvenile Justice, but Juvenile Court Chief Judge Ben Allen’s court saw none of those. The next school year, the district referred 64 cases, and only two were seen in Allen’s court.
For the past four years, Allen, who was not reappointed this month to another four-year term by the Superior Court judges, was in charge of truancy hearings. In a recent interview, Allen said the school system, which has social workers, counselors and psychiatrists, should handle and resolve truancy cases, not the underfunded court.
“The court putting people in jail doesn’t solve anything when it comes to truancy,” Allen said. “If we put the parents in jail, who’s going to get the child ready for school? If we put the child in jail, then he’s not going to school.”
McKinzie also said jail time can worsen the problem by taking a parent out of the home, but the court can intervene to determine whether a family needs counseling or other resources.
The newly appointed juvenile court judges plan to hear as many truancy cases as necessary. McKinzie said school and court officials will have to determine how severe cases should be before they are seen in court.
They also plan to visit schools and talk to students about drugs, attendance and positive behavior.
“If the children are in school, they’re off the streets,” McKinzie said. “When they’re off the street, that means there’s less crime. That’s why education is so important.”