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Searching for solutions to chronic truancy in county

Published: Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Sunday, Jan. 27, 2013 12:45 p.m. CDT

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Bob Diviacchi thought he knew what to expect.

As truancy outreach officer for the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, Diviacchi deals with the worst chronic truancy cases in the county. When he accepted the role about four months ago, he had preconceived notions about the face of truancy.

They didn’t last long.

“I’ve got them from the north end of the county to the south end of the county,” Diviacchi said. “It’s not just one ethnicity, and it’s not just one background.

“I, unfortunately, had made some assumptions myself coming into the position, thinking it was going to be certain socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s not the case at all.”

Diviacchi is the ROE’s lone full-time truancy official. Along with his part-time partner, he spends his days checking in on truant students either at their schools or their homes, meeting with parents and children in an effort to find solutions to their truancy issues, and – when all else fails – sitting in court.

It’s tough to tell whether chronic truancy is on the rise or falling. No reliable countywide numbers have previously been kept – an issue the Regional Office of Education is addressing under new Regional Superintendent of Schools Leslie Schermerhorn.

Across the state, the rate of chronically truant students had dropped each year since 2009 before it jumped in 2012 from 3.2 percent to 8.6 percent, according to a report from the Illinois State Board of Education. But there’s a reason for the drastic increase.

As of July 2011, the state has tightened the standards on what constitutes a truant student. Before, a child was considered chronically truant if he or she had 18 or more unexcused absences in the past 180 days. Now, the number has been cut in half to nine – meaning that children missing 5 percent or more of their school days are counted as chronically truant.

Schermerhorn likes the change. It’s easier to turn around a child who’s skipping here or there than one stretching a prolonged absence for a number of weeks or months, she said.

“The sooner that we can identify the symptom, the sooner we can meet with the family and treat the problem,” she said.

Truancy and school safety have been the top issues on Schermerhorn’s plate since she took office. Shrinking funding has stressed efforts on the former.

The McHenry County ROE is working on applying for a grant to get more funding for truancy staff and services. They won’t hear back until October, and the earliest the funding would kick in is the 2014-2015 school year.

They also are working on getting county numbers together on chronic truancy so they can better track which efforts are effective, and showcase their needs to politicians and potential funding sources.

Schermerhorn said it’s important to continue the sometimes frustrating effort toward reducing truancy in the county. Truancy, she said, has three-pronged consequences.

First, the child is not being educated. Second, schools lose funding for every child who doesn’t come to school.

“And the final component, and this is the one that’s going to cost all of us the most, is if we have an uneducated youth,” Schermerhorn said. “They’re going to be unemployable. They’re going to be incarcerated. They’re going to be living in poverty and raising families in poverty.”

For now, the department is dealing with the resources they have. They take on 70 to 100 cases a year. Last school year, the number was around 60. The department already has matched that total this school year.

By the time truancy cases make it to Diviacchi’s desk, the student’s school already has put in significant efforts to get the student back in the classroom.

Those efforts include meeting with parents, home visits, conferences, contracts saying the student promises to go to school, sending the student to counseling inside the school and using community resources.

The ROE tries to treat the core issue of truancy while providing resources to get a child back to school in the short term. They provide things such as gas money or an alarm clock. Recently, they bought a pair of gym shoes for a truant student who was embarrassed that he didn’t have any.

“They seem to work temporarily,” Amy Weiss Narea, assistant regional superintendent, said of the short-term solutions. “But if you don’t solve the deeper problems, you’re treating the symptoms.”

Mental health plays a big role in truancy, Diviacchi said. Depression either in a student or a parent can be at the root of a problem. Other students fall into drug issues that impact their attendance.

Diviacchi, a 12-year law enforcement veteran, tries to address those issues with counseling, but if a student isn’t making it to school, often they and their parents are absent in counseling sessions as well.

“When a family stops going, what more can we do?” he said. “I can’t physically drag mom [or] the child into counseling sessions.”

If repeated attempts to get the student back in school fail, parents can be sent to one of two court options – misdemeanor court or family court.

A judge in family court can choose to make counseling mandatory.

If charged with the class C misdemeanor, parents could face up to 30 days in jail, a maximum $500 fine or community service.

“This county, and I’m sure very few counties, will put a parent in the county jail,” Diviacchi said.

Diviacchi said he often deals with the same students during a school year or, in some cases, during a student’s career in school.

Because of the wide range of backgrounds, the ROE spends time intimately learning each individual child’s case.

But, Schermerhorn said, a simple characteristic connects most cases: poor parenting.

“Bed time is a non-negotiable. Going to school every day is a non-negotiable. Doing homework is a non-negotiable,” Schermerhorn said. “I’m not going to argue with my teenager about this. It’s just the expectation in this family.

“We’re seeing a lot of families that don’t operate that way.”

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