KINGSPORT — Of 26 truancy cases pending in the western end of Sullivan County, 24 received a final chance Monday afternoon at avoiding court intervention.
The other two cases are headed to court, where students can face forced removal from their home to that of a court-appointed guardian, and parents can face up to 11 months and 29 days in jail.
Monday marked the third annual Truancy Court, a voluntary program for parents and students in Kingsport’s Dobyns-Bennett and Sullivan County’s Sullivan South and Sullivan North high school zones.
“The more children go to school, the less likelihood they will end up down here as a juvenile delinquent,” General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Mark Toohey said. “All we want is for you to go to school to get your education.”
Toohey said the court system tries to do the least invasive measure to halt truancy.
Bob Larkins, director of court services for Toohey, said that for all 24 who showed up Monday afternoon, a contract was signed that the students would miss no more school this year unless they had a doctor’s excuse naming the specific reason or condition.
At the elementary level, parents sign. And at the high school and middle school level, parents and students sign. Truancy Council members sign all the contracts, too.
After the meeting, to which some parents and students arrived late, a parent in line to sign the contract told another parent that a doctor’s excuse with no reason would suffice since the medical history or condition of a student was not the school system’s “business.”
However Larkins, Kingsport City Schools Supervisor of Student Services Tyler Fleming and KCS Nurse Supervisor Vicki Johnston said the law, recently changed, allows school nurses to contact a doctor’s office and get the condition or reason with the permission of the parents or guardians.
Johnston said it is a tool the schools use to make sure those with chronic truancy have legitimate reasons for an absence.
Fleming said in some instances, school and court officials discover that doctor’s excuses parents send by students never get to school officials.
In addition to the contracts, the parents of the students signed up for a four-hour Moral Combat class.
“We’ve got so many referrals we can’t do them individually,” Larkins said after the session, which was voluntary and not based on a court summons.
In most of the cases at Truancy Court Monday, students had missed at least 10 days. Some had missed only nine or six but were carried over to 2008-09 because of truancy last year.
Privacy laws prohibit publicly identifying the students or parents at this step of the process, although Larkins said one student already has had 19 unexcused absences this year, and the names of adults who come to court to face jail time for their children’s truancy eventually become public.
Of the 26, eight were at the elementary level, and the others were at the middle or high school level — including the two who did not show up and face court.
Larkins said the Truancy Council meets every week and is basically a miniature version of the Truancy Court, which drew about 50 people ranging from grandmothers, mothers and fathers to siblings and an infant carried by an adult.
Fleming estimated that the program has a 75 percent to 80 percent success rate in reducing or eliminating unexcused ab sences among the targeted truant population. The KCS system last year had an overall attendance rate of 94 percent.
Larkins said the program recently got word it would continue receiving Tennessee funding through June 2010. It is one of a few across the state and the only one in Northeast Tennessee.
Aside from jail time, under another section of state law parents of truant students can face fines of $50 per day missed.
However, Larkins said that hasn’t been used locally because many parents wouldn’t be able to pay the fines. On the other hand, he said parents who actually go to jail often leave other children at home, leading to further court intervention and/or placement with other family members.
Truancy Court got its start under Judge Steve Jones, who retired, and continues with Toohey, who was elected after Jones did not seek re-election.