Truancy Prevention Summit inspires greater attendance

Vivian Stith-Williams, school social work specialist for the Virginia Department of Education's Office of Student Services, talks during the 3rd Annual Truancy Prevention Summit on Friday at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown. The all-day summit attracted 140 attendees, more than twice the number as last year. Josette Keelor/Daily

MIDDLETOWN — Truancy is a bigger problem than the simple act of arriving to school late or skiving off class every now and then. It affects a student’s education, it reduces graduation rates and it leads to questions of what students are doing with their time if not in school.

At the 3rd Annual Regional Truancy Summit at Lord Fairfax Community College in Middletown, school personnel, administrators, counselors, law enforcement, judges and Social Services representatives from around Virginia convened to discuss ways of reducing truancy rates in schools and addressing behavior that causes truancy.

The discussion begins with schools, said Vivian Stith-Williams, a school social work specialist with the Virginia Department of Education’s Office of Student Services, who spoke on truancy regulation.

It’s at schools where unexcused absences are first noticed, but she said that doesn’t mean it should fall to a school’s attendance secretary to notice if a student is absent.

In some school districts it takes hours to record absent and tardy students before even alerting a truancy officer, she said. Follow-up phone calls might not be relayed from one parent to the next, and in a school without a plan the domino effect begins the process of losing students.

Truancy is not the first warning sign, said Stith-Williams. It’s the first tardy.

That’s why she said it’s crucial for school staff to discuss plans for noticing if certain students are consistently late or start missing classes. Students connected with an adult in the building are more likely to show up for school, she said.

“It’s really important for somebody to know that student,” she said.

Her presentation identified proposed regulations governing unexcused absences and truancy in Virginia, listing five unexcused absences as a point for intervention. But she said it doesn’t take long for an at-risk teen to rack up five absences.

Asked how to affect the ratio of attendance officers to students in a district that has 11 officers for 80,000 students, Stith-Williams said the number of officers isn’t yet mandated by the Department of Education and that many districts share officers between schools.

“[The proposed legislation] is at the governor’s office, and it’s been there,” she said.

Diane Johnson, an attendance officer who attended the summit from Fauquier High School, said the job of keeping up with truancy is a growing problem.

“It’s overwhelming, it really is,” she said.

Though Fauquier County Public Schools have one attendance officer for each high school, she said the addition of a third school recently drew assistant officers from the other two schools, leaving her with more work in addition to other assigned duties.

She said it takes more than one person at a 1,200-student high school to do attendance and usually requires two to three hours for her to process the tardies alone. If processing field trips, the recording of absences takes even longer, she said.

Fauquier also has two graduation specialists, Johnson said.

“It’s not just about truancy,” she said, “it’s about getting everyone to graduate.”

Helping that effort in Arlington is the Second Chance Program, which summit presenters said intervenes for teens facing substance abuse-related expulsion from school.

The goal, said Meg Tuccillo, retired assistant superintendent for administration for Arlington County Public Schools, was to determine an educational way of redirecting students to school while also addressing the problem of drug use.

The result was a three-day program with an annual $100,000 budget that’s funded through the school system, county government and a non-professional grant. Volunteers from the Arlington Partnership for Children, Youth and Families Foundation and the program’s advisory board also commit their time to the program, which Lt. Ron Files with the Arlington County Police Department said particularly helps first-time offenders.

“A lot of kids’ lives are being ruined,” he said. Instead, through the program, they and their parents receive support and teens learn how they might avoid similar situations in the future.

In its first year, Second Chance enrolled 102 students, but four years later has decreased the numbers of those requiring intervention to about 75.

It also has reduced the number of court dockets and officers needed for teen drug-related cases, an effort Files said has saved the department $38,000.

“It saved a lot of kids that wouldn’t have gone to college,” he said. “[It] gave them truly a second chance.”

For information on Second Chance, visit http://www.apsva.us/Domain/4055.

Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com