WILKES-BARRE — Concerned about increasing truancy rates, a Luzerne County judge is calling upon county school districts to take a more uniform and proactive approach to address the family and societal issues that are causing the problems.
Judge Tina Polachek Gartley said the standard approach taken by most school districts — which is to file summary citations against the parent and/or child — isn’t working. She wants school officials to take more aggressive action, including filing dependency petitions, which would bring Children and Youth Services into the picture.
She also is taking strong measures against habitually truant juveniles, sending those who repeatedly refuse to comply with school rules to juvenile treatment facilities that can force them to attend class.
It’s all part of a concerted effort to stem growing truancy rates in the county, which increased from 3.5 percent in the 2009-10 school year to 4.5 percent in 2010-11, according to the state Department of Education.
State law requires children ages 8 to to 17 to attend school. A child is considered truant if he or she has more than three unexcused absences in a year. Schools are required to notify parents in writing after the third unexcused absence.
A child is considered to be habitually truant if he or she misses three or more days after that first notice is sent.
Fines are punitive
Citations for compulsory school attendance carry fines up to $300. Polachek Gartley said the fine is strictly a punitive measure. It does nothing to address the underlying issues that are causing the child to miss school.
“A fine alone is not going to work,” she said. “We often find there are more things going on in the house. There may be a drug and alcohol issue, where the parent is not waking up to get the child to school.”
Part of the problem in addressing truancy is that different school districts handle the issue differently, the judge said. She has been working with several officials, including District Judge Joseph Halesey in Hanover Township, to form a task force to develop a more uniform policy.
The majority of districts rely solely on citations. Others, such as Wilkes-Barre Area and Hazleton Area, have taken a more active role and will file court petitions that seek to have the child declared dependent, she said. That allows the court to bring in social service agencies, under the guidance of Children and Youth, to help address the family’s issues.
It’s crucial to get social service agencies involved with the family early on, before the problems compound, the judge said. “We want to correct the truant behavior before the child falls too far behind,” Polachek Gartley said. “If a kid is 14 and still in sixth grade, do you think they’re going to want to go to school?”
Ray Wendowlowski, solicitor for Wilkes-Barre Area, said the the filing of a dependency petition is typically a last resort after other efforts are exhausted and the parents and/or child are not cooperating.
“In the vast majority of cases you have a situation where there is something serious gong on in the family. It’ s not just the child is refusing to go to school,” said Wendowlowski. “This process allows the court and Children and Youth to get involved to provide whatever help is needed.”
There are times when all efforts fail. In those cases the juvenile law allows the court to take custody away from the parent and, as a last resort, order the child to a non-secure juvenile detention facility, such as Youth Services Agency (formerly Camp Adams) in Jim Thorpe.
That’s what happened to Joseph Lenahan’s grandson. The 17-year-old Wilkes-Barre teen is in the custody of Vision Quest, a residential treatment program for juveniles. He was sent there in March after he failed to cooperate with several outpatient programs.
“I couldn’t understand why someone who was not convicted of a crime was sent there,” Lenahan said.
Incarcerating truant juveniles is a controversial move that’s being used by other courts as well, said Marsha Levick, an attorney with the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
Levick said she understands the court’s interest in ensuring children attend school, but removing a child from the home is not the answer. “Any break in school attendance — whether self-imposed through truancy or court imposed through placement — risks throwing kids off track educationally,” Levick said. “Truancy alone should not be used as a basis for placement. More creative, alternative solutions must be sought for these kids.”
Wendowlowski and Polachek Gartley said they understand some people might disagree with the philosophy, but they’re convinced that — in certain cases — it’s the only option.
“If you have a 15-year-old who comes in and says ‘I don’t care what you say, I’m not going to school,’ the judge has the right to say, ‘I’m going to send you someplace where they will make you go to school,’ ” Wendowlowski said. “The court takes these things very seriously and will do whatever it takes to make sure services are provided in-home. In rare circumstances where a child refuses to cooperate or there are serious issues going on in the family, custody can be taken from the parent.”
Lenahan, who had custody of the teen for a brief period, said he and the teen’s parents initially objected to the placement. They have since come to agree that it might be the best thing for him to help him address other issues, including marijuana usage.
“I don’t like the way it was gone about, but after talking with a counselor, he does need something,” Lenahan said. “This place is more intensive. They’re making him accountable for his behavior.”