Just a year ago, if you skipped a lot of school and you lived in some parts of the Fort Osage district in northeast Jackson County, there weren’t a lot of consequences.
Besides the cosmic ones. The trouble-getting-a-good-job, lowered-expectations-of-life ones.
But there were no follow-ups from law enforcement. Certainly no one was going to hunt you down like the guy in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
The times, though, they are a-changin’.
Now, due to efforts of Jackson County judges and Fort Osage school officials, there’s a courtroom waiting for parents of hard-core school skippers. And the “education court” — a softer name for “truancy courts” that exist elsewhere in the metro — has put people on notice that persistent unexcused absences will not be tolerated.
The court is something Jeffrey Keal came up with while working in the Jackson County prosecutor’s office in Independence. As prosecutor, Keal would be able to track the often downward spiraling paths of kids who missed a lot of school. The ones who lived inside Independence city limits would end up in the city’s truancy court.
“Then it came to my attention that there were areas unserved by that,” he said.
Namely the Fort Osage district, only part of which lies in Independence. Families in other parts of the district had no truancy court to go to.
So, after observing some other courts, Keal, who is now an associate circuit judge in Jackson County, worked to set one up.
The new education court, which meets once a month and is presided over by Associate Circuit Judge Twila Rigby, will fill in the cracks that students in some areas of the county have been slipping through for years.
Although the court is new, it’s been successful so far, say court and school officials. Fort Osage is the only district to send families there up to now.
Keal said the goal is to eventually have other participation by other districts with areas unserved by other courts. Those would include part of the Raytown and Blue Springs districts. However, no other districts are currently talking with Keal or Rigby about getting on board.
Only three families from the more rural part of the Fort Osage district have been called to court since it began roughly a year ago, said Deepa Miller, the school’s social worker. But she’s already seen how it can change attitudes.
“It’s a great resource,” she said.
Miller has seen improved attendance and better grades as families have gone through court.
The kids Miller refers to court are not one-time offenders. After repeated unexcused absences, the school issues notes at 5, 10 and 15 days asking parents to come in with doctor’s notes or other excuses. Social workers might also do follow-up calls or visit the student’s house and leave a note.
But if all that fails, the parents could get a summons to court.
“It’s a last resort,” said Miller. “Our goal is to increase attendance and have grades go up as a result.”
That’s why it’s the parents who get the summons, she said. The district would rather have the kids stay in school than be in court.
The school will work with the parents on attendance improvement plans, Miller said.
And other considerations, such as homelessness and mental health issues, are also taken into account.
“But there have been instances where we don’t hear from the family at all,” she said.
Those are the ones who get the summonses.
In addition to the Jackson County court referrals, Fort Osage has reported nine families to Independence courts this academic year for persistent absences.
The court appearance is an extra incentive that backs up the district, said Judge Rigby, a former fourth-grade teacher.
“I see people on the extreme ends of things,” she said “If we can just get kids there every day we can help them. If they’re not showing up (the school’s) hands are tied.”
Part of the reason the court is effective is that it brings the parents in, Keal said. Often, the kids aren’t concerned about themselves getting into trouble. But they don’t like seeing their parents get in trouble or miss work to show up before a judge.
Once in court, officials work with parents to get the child back in school. But it’s worth noting that people who come to court won’t go just once, said Miller. The parents will have to come back monthly until they can show improvement in attendance and sometimes grades as well, she said.
“I don’t expect perfect, but I do want to see progress,” said Miller
And if even all that doesn’t work? Prosecutors have the option to file a complaint for every day the student misses, Keal said. All those penalties, which could be as much as $300 plus court costs or 15 days in jail each, add up.
So far, though, that hasn’t happened.
“We’ve had great compliance,” said Keal.
Missouri children are required to attend school until age 17 or until 16 units of credit toward high school graduation have been completed. Most of the kids whose cases reach education court are in the middle school age, around 13 or so, Rigby said.
Now that the court is up and running, Keal said he’d like to take it to the next level by getting the kids some tutoring and mentoring so they can catch up with their classmates.
Keal hopes to team them up with students in the state’s A+ scholarship program who could help with class work.
Miller agrees that partnering with A+ or Big Brothers and Big Sisters can help the young people feel more committed to school.
“What I appreciated about the education court is that it is not something punitive, but something to help the parents,” said Miller. “I hope they’ll walk away knowing we want the students to be successful, to graduate.”