Judge hopes for truancy overhaul

Children are no longer being dragged into Richmond County Juvenile Court after a few unexcused absences.

Juvenile Court Judge Ben Allen said he held a few hearings shortly after being assigned to oversee truancy court a year ago, but he soon stopped.

The number of students referred to his court for truancy slowed considerably after he decided the process wasn't working and needed to be overhauled.

In each of the past three years, more than 1,000 students were referred to court for truancy, but last school year that number nose-dived. By mid-April, only 282 referrals were made.

"I just decided there's got to be a better way," Judge Allen said in a recent interview.

He said he prefers a system that provides support and helps students avoid the courts all together.

"Truancy is a symptom, not a problem," he said. "I'm trying to get us to a point where it's not punishment we're looking for, it's the best interest of the child."

Judge Allen said it's important to uncover the underlying reason why a child is skipping school. For example, it might be because the child's family has a home without power.

"You've got to deal with that issue before you can start to talk about school," he said. "We've had a process, but I don't think we've addressed truancy the way I would like to."

In 2004, the Georgia General Assembly passed legislation requiring every community to develop a truancy protocol committee. The intent was to create a collaborative effort across government agencies to address truancy by establishing local policies and meeting regularly to further its efforts.

Students with five or more unexcused absences were ordered to appear in Richmond County court, which would determine the cause of the problem and direct officials to work with the student and the student's family to resolve it.

In November, however, the county's state-mandated committee stopped meeting as a whole group, instead assigning a subcommittee the task of completely rewriting the truancy protocol, said Steve Hayes, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, one of the agencies represented by the committee.

The new protocol will incorporate a screening process, preventing cases from getting into the juvenile justice system that can be handled outside court.

"Schools will be asked to assist in screening cases before making court referrals, and the new protocol will clarify each agency's role," Mr. Hayes wrote in an e-mail. "Bottom line reason for reworking it is that too many cases easily handled outside of court were going to court unnecessarily."

The full committee is expected to meet again this month to consider approving the new protocol, he said.

"Hopefully as planned the new protocol will be effective for the new school year," Mr. Hayes said.

Judge Allen said the proposed changes direct resources to assist the student up front.

Richmond County Superintendent Dana Bedden said educators continue to struggle to find a solution to truancy.

"I'm in a wait-and-see mode" on the proposed changes, he said. Judge Allen said the same approach to education has been taken for hundreds of years, and truancy remains a problem.

"Will this approach work? I don't know, but it's different," he said.

Reach Greg Gelpi at (706) 828-3851 or greg.gelpi@augustachronicle.com.