Truancy across the Bibb County school system has been a challenge for years, and it’s about to get a fresh look.
But it’s not just the numbers that school officials will be concentrating on. They want to go deeper.
To get a handle on why students aren’t attending school, “You need to look into what’s behind the truancy,” said Tom Matthews, Bibb County’s chief Juvenile Court judge.
And that’s what a new group aims to do.
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“We want to address and decrease truancy in Bibb County,” said Jamie Cassady, the district’s assistant superintendent for student affairs. And one way you do that, he agreed, is to examine the “root causes” of the problem.
He has helped form a truancy task force that he hopes will help get students with significant unexcused absences back on track.
“We’re taking those students with 10 or more absences and we’re going to bring them in front of a group,” he said.
That panel, made up of a cross-section of people from across the community, will be charged with addressing and assisting in proper attendance.
Georgia law requires that children 15 years old or younger attend 180 days of school unless there’s a valid reason to miss. Failure to comply can result in a fine -- or even jail time -- for parents.
When a student misses too much school, it’s considered neglect -- the same as if a child is denied food or shelter. In 2013, the Georgia Supreme Court upheld a law that holds parents accountable for not having their children in class. The court unanimously ruled that the state’s Mandatory Education Statue is constitutional and that the accountability provision is valid.
“I think part of it is bad family life and, particularly, a lack of supervision and control by their parents,” Matthews said. “I am just totally distressed by the number of parents that I’ve seen who don’t care if their children get an education. They see the requirements of public schooling as simply an impediment to doing what they want to do. So the parents themselves aren’t pushing the children.”
The total number of students across the system who have had five or more unexcused absences has actually decreased in recent years, from 37 percent of students in 2012-13 to 35 percent in 2014-15, according to the school district.
Still, it presents a significant problem, one that Cassady hopes the new system will improve.
HOW IT WORKS
Before getting to the truancy committee, a parent or guardian of a student with one to three unexcused absences will be contacted by the student’s teacher. Then on the third day, the school counselor will send a letter to the student and the student’s parents, Cassady said.
From day three to five, the school counselor will “continue to make contact with the guardians.” By day seven, the case will be referred to school district’s Office of School Social Services, and a social worker will get involved.
Day 10 is when the truancy task force kicks in.
“The parent, as well as the kid, will come in front of the task force,” Cassady said. “The social worker will present the case. The parent will have a chance to respond to that, and then we will meet as a committee and figure out what their options are after that.”
Depending on the situation, it could range from dealing with issues such as poverty or a lack of transportation -- or an unruly student who simply keeps skipping class.
Whatever the issue, Cassady hopes there will be at least one person on the committee of seven to 12 people who can address it.
Regena Jackson, the school district’s truancy officer, accompanies the social worker when it comes time to visit a student’s home.
“We do have some that decide to come on back to school,” she said, adding that sometimes it’s just parents not knowing the law.
She cited an example in which a divorced mother was catering to her child’s plea by allowing the student to stay home.
“The issue was that she was just not familiar with Georgia law,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t an academic problem. It was just a social issue for her child.”
If accountability measures are applied, “according to the code section, the (penalty) can be anywhere from $25 to a $100 fine, and it also states that they can have up to 30 days in jail,” she said.
If the issue is something that children aren’t to blame for, Matthews said, the matter shouldn’t come to court.
Social issues such as students being bullied, having learning disabilities or not having proper clothing to wear are prime areas for a “community-based resolution” proposed by the new task force.
The first meeting of the truancy task force is scheduled for Oct. 6 at the school board office.
“We’re just trying to be proactive as much as we possibly can,” Cassady said. “One of the areas of focus for (superintendent) Col. (Curtis) Jones is attendance. So we’re just trying to turn it up a notch.”