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Boulder County’s new approach to truancy replaces court with review team, focuses on support

February 18, 2018 | By Amy Bounds

Since she started working with truant students as a Boulder Valley School District attendance advocate 12 years ago, Christina Suarez wanted to see the court mirror the district’s approach of help over punishment.

So she was all for the Truancy Improvement Project, launched in the fall of 2016 by the 20th Judicial District in partnership with local agencies. Instead of regular court appearances before a judge, a truancy review team connects the student and family to services.

“It’s something I always hoped would happen,” Suarez said.

Under the new model, chronic absenteeism is seen as a symptom of other challenges, including mental health issues, substance abuse and trauma.

“We need to address the root cause of what’s impacting a child’s ability to go to school,” Suarez said.

This school year, those involved said, the system is hitting its stride, with almost all chronically truant cases in Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley going through the new system.

Karin Blough, St. Vrain’s student services coordinator, said the district doesn’t have a single case in Boulder County truancy court this year, with all the cases instead going through the review team.

“It really falls in line with what we’ve been doing and the national trends,” she said. “The whole goal is to keep families out of court. We want to support the family to get access to services.”

In Boulder Valley, six cases are in truancy court and the rest are going through the review team process. Parents can choose between the two, and occasionally will ask for court in the hope that a student will take it more seriously, Suarez said.

Last school year, the review team worked with 39 families, with 26 referred to Mental Health Partners for counseling.

Other referrals for services for the students included mentors, Workforce Boulder County to earn a GED and recreation options like the Longmont Youth Center and soccer and dance teams. For the parents, referrals included local family resource centers like Lafayette’s Sister Carmen Community Center.

So far this school year, 26 families are working with the review team.

Along with the 20th Judicial District and the two school districts, the partnership includes Mental Health Partners, Boulder County Housing and Human Services and Boulder’s Voices For Children CASA.

Voices for Children so far has appointed 17 CASAs, or court appointed special advocates, to truant kids through the new program — and is a actively recruiting volunteers to work with both truant kids and kids in dependency and neglect cases.

A difference, but how much?

While there’s not enough data yet to say if the changes are working to reduce truancy numbers, CASA executive director Jacob Harmon said, the kids who are working with advocates are “almost exclusively attending school more.”

“It’s a program we are 100 percent committed to because we know it’s making a difference,” he said. “We just don’t know how to quantify it yet.”

Coordinating the project is Boulder County’s IMPACT, or Integrated Managed Partnership for Adolescent and Child Community Treatment, a 12-agency partnership created to serve the highest risk kids and families.

Dave Bonaiuto, IMPACT manager, said the program is meeting its goals of reducing court time for truant students and increasing supports.

In the 2015-16 school year, he said, there were 142 truancy court filings in the 20th Judicial District. Last school year, that number dropped to 14. This school year, it’s at six.

Under the old system, Boulder County truant students, accompanied by a parent or guardian, were required to appear in court every two weeks — with students missing even more school and some parents losing jobs because they were forced to miss work.

“You want court to remain that mystery that they want to avoid,” Suarez said. “You don’t want to normalize court

Though rare, the judge also could throw either a truant student or the parent in jail for failing to follow court orders — a tactic that research shows makes things worse, not better.

“It creates another layer of trauma,” Suarez said.

A requirement for trust

A state Department of Justice study on truancy in Colorado shows that kids who have more than one hearing in truancy court are 18.5 times more likely to end up in juvenile detention and 14.5 times less likely to graduate than other truant kids.

Students sent to court or taking part in the review team are those who are considered habitually truant, defined in state statute as a child between 6 and 17 with four unexcused absences in one month or ten unexcused absences in a school year.

Attendance advocates in both districts say they try a slew of interventions before sending truant students to court, from sending a letter home when they first see an issue to meetings and home visits.

Suarez, one of Boulder Valley’s three attendance advocates, said about 80 percent of Boulder Valley’s truancy cases are resolved before they need to be filed in court.

The cases that end up in court tend to be the most complex. Issues include homelessness, trauma, abuse, substance abuse and mental illness — and it often requires building trust to get a family to open up about those issues.

She said 70 to 75 percent of truant students also live in poverty.

“Poverty creates chaos,” she said. “Families can’t organize their lives if an emergency comes up. We want to provide healthier coping mechanisms.”

The review team starts with the child and adolescent needs and strength assessment to identify the highest need of a family, then provides one or two referrals to address that need.

While truancy court could feel adversarial for families, Suarez said, the review team wants to make sure parents feel supported, without judgement. Parents are offered options for services, not ordered to use them.

“It doesn’t matter how difficult a family’s situation might be, they all want their children to succeed,” Suarez said. “Once we can help the parents be more functional, the more effective we are with the kids.”

‘Struggling to attend’

Unlike truancy court, which was open to the public, the review team’s weekly discussions are closed. So the team provided a case study to the Daily Camera and Times-Call to show how the system works.

In the case study, a teen being raised by his grandmother was missing much more school than he was attending because “the very thought of walking into the building would lead to a panic attack.”

School supports didn’t help, and he was referred to the truancy review team for an assessment, which learned more about his anxiety, other stressors in his life and his strong desire to graduate from high school.

Along with one-on-one sessions at a local mental health center, the review team suggested he work with Workforce Boulder County’s GED Learning Lab. The Learning Lab provided tutoring to help him earn a GED. He recently completed his GED exam with honors.

“The review team is a group of people thinking through the needs of this population week in and week out,” Bonaiuto said. “They have a lot of expertise in working with families.”

While other courts in Colorado that switched to a similar model found that mental health or other services were lacking, Bonaiuto said, the bigger challenge here has been getting families to access the services.

“It’s a population that’s struggling to attend,” he said. “We follow up with the family after 10 days and after four months and try to remove barriers.”

While too many unexcused absences will land a student in truancy proceedings, local attendance advocates also want to reduce excused absences.

Once a student’s attendance drops to 90 percent attendance or less, excused or not, that’s when negative outcomes start to impact kids, Blough said.

“We’re looking more at chronic absenteeism as a district,” she said. “Really, the bottom line is we need to get kids to school.”

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