A tougher truancy policy kept more Columbia County pupils in class during the 2005-06 school year, officials say.
Columbia County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Flanagan said the new truancy policy reduced the number of repeat offenders appearing before him.
"I think the parents have gotten the message," he said.
That message, as formulated last year by a state-mandated committee of education and law enforcement officials, is that truancy is now being taken much more seriously than in years past.
Before the Columbia County school board adopted the committee's recommendations on truancy in May 2005, parents could write a seemingly endless number of notes asking that their children be excused from school.
Now only five parent-excused absences are accepted each semester. Absences beyond that require a note from a medical professional.
Associate School Superintendent Charles Nagle said he thinks the new policy has improved student attendance.
"The number of students being out massive numbers of days, I think, has been reduced, which means more children were in school for more hours of instruction," Mr. Nagle said.
Mr. Nagle said he is still waiting on end-of-year reports from schools and did not know the system's attendance rate for the past school year.
As of December, attendance was 97.3 percent, up from 96.7 during the same time the year before.
The truancy policy allows only three unexcused absences in a semester before a pupil is reported as truant to the Columbia County Sheriff's Office.
A pupil can also be reported to the sheriff's office after 10 absences, excused or not, in a semester. Leniency is given to pupils with chronic illnesses once they provide the required medical documentation.
In addition to punishing pupils for missing too much school, the policy grants Judge Flanagan the ability to punish parents. Parents of truant children could face fines as high as $100 and even jail time.
The tougher truancy stance, which Judge Flanagan helped write, is increasing awareness among parents of truant children, he said.
"If you're a parent and the sheriff's department is coming to see you about a truancy problem with your child, guess what? You find out it's very important."
The sheriff's office, which tackled truancy cases for the first time this past school year, received 351 truancy complaints from school officials, said Sgt. Harold Clack, the officer in charge of the county's juvenile abatement program.
About half of those incidents were "unfounded," Sgt. Clack said. In some cases, parents were unaware of the change and corrected their actions, but some parents, he said, just didn't care.
"We had some kid that was tardy every day," Sgt. Clack said. "We tried to talk to the parent, and the parent was like, 'I'm not putting up with that school traffic, and she's only like 15 minutes late. What's the problem?'"
But such reactions are rare, Mr. Nagle said.
"I know it's hit a raw nerve with some people, but what they need to understand is that we're after the same thing and that's to provide the best education for their children," he said.
"We can't do that unless the children are there."
Reach Donnie Fetter at (706) 868-1222, ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
Truancy figures from the 2005-06 school year in Columbia County:
61: The number of truancy cases in Juvenile Court.
3: The number of times a parent was given jail time because of truant children.
$700: The amount of fines levied against parents this school year because of their truant children.
3: The number of teen driver's licenses suspended by the Juvenile Court for truancy.
4: The number of juveniles sent to the Regional Youth Development Center for violating a truancy probation.
3: The number of repeat offenders for truancy.
Source: Columbia County Juvenile Court