ROCKVILLE, Md., March 23, 2010—Montgomery County Council Vice President Valerie Ervin, who serves as chair of the Council’s Education Committee, on Wednesday, March 24, will join with Professor Barbara A. Babb and Senior Fellow Gloria Danziger from the University of Baltimore School of Law, State’s Attorney John McCarthy, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Superintendent Jerry Weast, Board of Education President Patricia O’Neill and Board Member Shirley Brandman to announce establishment of a new “Truancy Court Pilot Program” targeted at encouraging habitually truant students to improve their school attendance.
The kick off event will begin at 9:30 a.m. at Key Middle School in Silver Spring (910 Schindler Drive).
Truancy is an issue confronting communities throughout the nation. Research links truancy to higher drop-out rates, substance abuse and juvenile delinquency. At Council Vice President Ervin’s request, the Council’s Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) recently compiled a report on Truancy in Montgomery County. That report was the subject of a March 18 joint worksession of the Council’s Education and Public Safety committees.
The goal of the Truancy Court Program is to improve student attendance by discovering the root causes of truancy and assisting students and their families with issues that impact attendance. This preventative program, which is funded by a federal grant, pairs students with a volunteer judge who meets with students for 10 weeks to determine why the student repeatedly misses school.
Students and their families voluntarily participate in the Truancy Court Program, which consists of weekly, in-school meetings and capitalizes on the stature and authority of judges. Participants at each meeting include a volunteer judge, a team of school representatives, a coordinator from the University of Baltimore’s School of Law and the child. Parents are encouraged, but not required, to attend the meetings. In addition, participants can attend a special after-school, character-building class conducted by a program mentor.
“Students who may not otherwise listen to an adult will often sit up and take notice when they appear before a judge,” said Council Vice President Ervin, who represents Kensington, Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Wheaton. “Once we have their attention, then the real work starts with the truancy court team figuring out why students are not participating fully in school. The program works to plan appropriate interventions to turn this behavior around. I am confident that this program will have a positive impact on the lives of these students.”
Council Vice President Ervin and State’s Attorney McCarthy have been independently working on issues associated with truancy. State’s Attorney McCarthy and his staff were interviewed for the OLO report because of their experience with students who are considered habitually truant.
“Part of what makes the Truancy Court Program so effective is the focus on interagency collaboration,” said Council Vice President Ervin. “John and I have been working on ways to keep students in the classroom. The Truancy Court Program will help us pull together all appropriate stakeholders and develop effective strategies for dealing with truancy. Motivating our children to attend class reduces the opportunity for them to engage in risky behaviors and helps improve public safety.”
OLO’s Truancy in Montgomery County shows that 984 students, or less than one percent, of MCPS students were classified as habitually truant (defined as unlawfully absent from school for 18 or more days in a semester or 36 or more days in a school year).
“While Montgomery County does not have a widespread truancy problem, we still have too many students who are missing school on a regular basis,” said Ms. O’Neill. “The truancy court is the type of innovative, collaborative program that can have a real impact.”
“We can’t educate students who aren’t in school, so it is vitally important that, as a community, we emphasize the real impact of truancy,” said Superintendent Weast. “This program will help us individually address the root causes of truancy for a student and come up with specific strategies to address the problem.”
Maryland law limits the actions that community police officers can take to address truancy. According to the OLO report, “Neither state nor local law imposes criminal penalties on students for truancy. In the vast majority of cases, Montgomery County police officers cannot stop or detain students who they find out of school during a school day simply because they are not in school. State law, however, imposes misdemeanor criminal penalties on people who encourage a child to or help a child miss school without a valid excuse and on parents or guardians who do not ensure that their child attends school.”
Behavioral changes, not punitive measures, are required to ensure that chronically truant students realize the importance of school attendance.
“Truancy is a real issue that exists and the efforts of our many community partners to meaningfully address this issue is a significant step toward reengaging students in their education and reducing their involvement in risky behaviors including criminal behavior,” said State’s Attorney McCarthy. “I am thrilled to be part of this project.”
The Truancy Court Program includes interactive interventions that provide assistance not only to students, but also addresses the needs of families. The program includes a mentoring program for students and their parents; character-building classes and individual mentoring; weekly incentives or rewards for participating students; and graduations that reward students who demonstrate at least a 75 percent increase in attendance, better classroom behavior, and improved grades, with gifts, graduation certificates and a reception.
“The University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Families, Children and the Courts is delighted to bring its Truancy Court Program to Montgomery County Schools,” said Professor Babb, the director for the Center for Families, Children and Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “We believe that the Truancy Court Program’s non-adversarial and holistic approach to truancy is the most effective way to address the issues underlying truant behavior. Students who participate in the program continue to show improved attendance even after they complete the program.”
The Truancy Court Program is already a proven success in Baltimore City. The University of Baltimore School of Law’s Center for Families and Children and the Courts (CFFCC) established the Truancy Court Program, which began operating in February 2005. Data from the University of Baltimore indicate that the Truancy Court Program is making a dramatic difference in attendance rates and school behavior, with an overall 50 to 75 percent decrease in unexcused absences for students who are categorized as tardy during and immediately following participation in the program.
Leaders are confident that they will realize the same success rates in Montgomery County.
“In the few weeks of operating the program at Neelsville and Francis Scott Key Middle schools, it has already had an impact with many students improving their attendance, classroom behavior and academic performance,” said Ms. Danziger, a senior fellow at the Center for Families, Children and the Courts. “Each week, students look forward to meeting with our volunteer judges, Master Joan Ryon and District Court Judge James Sarsfield, and team members to discuss their goals and achievements. Both schools have gone above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that the program succeeds.”