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Tough talk: Prosecutors launch anti-truancy program

Washington County prosecutors and school leaders hope tough talk about truancy will send some students back to class.

The Washington County Attorney's Office and local school districts are trying to keep kids in the classroom - and out of court - by holding candid conversations with habitual truants and their parents.

In its infancy, the new program is focused on the South Washington County School District for the remainder of this school year. The first meeting was held Feb. 27 with more scheduled monthly through May.

Students are told by prosecutors and school leaders of the value of staying in school. There is a "heavy-handed approach" to the conversation too, said Sue Harris, the assistant county attorney leading the program.

"We let them know how important it is and if you don't graduate from high school, this is what your future looks like," Harris said. "We don't mean to scare them, but we're not dancing around it either."

The effort is not new. Washington County Community Services held similar intervention classes up until about two years ago, but the program was cut for budget reasons.

Absent an intervention class, the attorney's office sends letters to the parents of students ages 12 to 15 with between three and five days of unexcused absences. Students in that age group who miss at least seven days are referred to a meeting with a Community Services truancy worker to develop a diversion contract, Harris said.

"They get in there early and try to avoid court," she said.

Schools have their own attendance contract for 16- and 17-year-old truants, but that is the only alternative to juvenile court for that age group.

The new program is open to middle school and high school students with at least three days of unexcused absences. Schools provide names of students to the attorney's office.

Seventeen students from District 833 schools were invited to the initial meeting last week. Eight kids and their parents showed up for the session at the Washington County South Service Center.

Attendance is voluntary; the attorney's office cannot require families to attend.

"They're strongly encouraged," Harris said. "If they don't attend, we want to inform them of what lays ahead if the behavior doesn't change."

The intent is to intervene and correct behavior before a student ends up in the court system.

A student can be referred to juvenile court after unexcused absences on at least seven days. Consequences issued through the court system could include community service hours, the delay or loss of a driver's permit or license, alcohol and drug testing or a fine of up to $100. The most serious cases can lead to an out-of-home placement order for the child.

The new program is being applauded by school leaders.

Matt Kraft, an assistant principal at East Ridge High School, said the intervention classes are "extremely helpful." Dakota County offers a similar program that has worked to keep kids in class and out of the juvenile court system. Washington County's previous program was successful too.

The classes are an opportunity to talk to students not only about the consequences of continued truancy, but also of the benefits of staying in school.

"It's basically just having that additional and deeper conversation," Kraft said.

Staying in class is the key to succeeding, Kraft said.

"That's your No. 1 factor in success at school so we obviously feel that it's imperative to have our students attending on a regular basis," he said.

While only District 833 students are part of the program this spring, Harris said the goal is to include all school districts in the county beginning this fall. Organizers also hope to provide students and parents with resources such as information about the Washington County Youth Service Bureau

Launching the program has been a priority for Washington County Attorney Pete Orput, who made the issue a focus once he took office last year. Orput assigned Harris to lead the effort, though he plans to participate in the classes. He said it's important to make students aware of the problems that can stem from ditching out of school, including criminal activity.

"If the kid doesn't get educated, I'm going to end up incarcerating him," Orput said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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