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Truancy to be topic at regional meetings this fall

By Staff | Jul 28, 2011

KINGWOOD, W.Va. Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis announced July 28 the details of an unprecedented new effort to coordinate judicial truancy programs in West Virginia.

Beginning this fall, Justice Davis will appear at 14 regional meetings of school superintendents and principals to discuss ways the court system can work with educators, the Department of Health and Human Resources and other community officials to keep children in school.

The regional meetings are tentatively planned for Martinsburg, Wheeling, Morgantown, Parkersburg, Clarksburg, Elkins, Keyser, Point Pleasant, Charleston, Summersville, Lewisburg, Huntington, Logan and Beckley. Dates and venues have not been selected and will be announced at a later time.

“The truancy habit can lead students to drop out of school before graduation. That is usually the beginning of a lifetime of trouble that can include unemployment, drug dependency, crime, and incarceration,” Justice Davis said Thursday at a gathering of teachers from across West Virginia. “Our state jails and prisons are overflowing. We can’t afford to wait another minute to address this problem, or to allow another young life to be wasted.”

Justice Davis has been appointed by the Supreme Court to coordinate the efforts of circuit judges who work with schools to reduce truancy rates. The Court hopes a Justice’s leadership will encourage more judges and schools to work together.

Justice Davis spoke Thursday to more than 170 teachers and school service personnel who are attending a week-long summer school sponsored by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia at the Camp Dawson Conference Center in Kingwood, Preston County.

“She is right on target,” said Cynthia Phillips, a special education teacher at Capital High School in Charleston who has been teaching for 36 years. “This has been one of our leading problems. I am really happy the court system has seen this and is doing something.

“People don’t know how long we have awaited this change in public education. People are listening now,” Ms. Phillips said. “The buzz word now is ‘community.’ Now we have the judicial system, which is part of our community.”

Justice Davis’ speech in Kingwood was so well received that the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association immediately voted to endorse the judicial anti-truancy plan.

“Everyone realized just how critical this is,” said Bob Brown, executive director of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

Jackee Long, state president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said truancy also is an important issue to school aides and cooks. Aides worry about their preschool and kindergarten students who are not there, and worry that they are beginning a bad attendance habit that could carry forward into their later school years.

“Those cooks realize those children are not getting a meal that day. They worry about their nutrition,” Long said.

“This is something we deal with all the time,” said Judy Hale, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. “It takes a tremendous amount of time on our part and it is so detrimental to the children who drop out or who are excessively absent. We are all delighted with this initiative, and we hope we can go to these meetings across this state and have input, because clearly it is teachers and school service personnel who deal with these issues.”

Truancy also was the topic of a meeting during the spring Judicial Conference in Charleston in June. Circuit Judges from around West Virginia were joined in that discussion by State Schools Superintendent Jorea Marple; Board of Education president Priscilla Haden; Senate Education Chairman Robert Plymale, D-Wayne; and House Education Chairwoman Mary Poling, D-Barbour. They agreed that the three branches of government should work together on the issue.

Some circuit judges in West Virginia already have initiated truancy programs. At the regional meetings, Justice Davis will discuss those programs as examples of ideas that work. The purpose of the regional meetings, however, will be to begin to tailor similar programs that would work best in individual communities.

“In some areas, especially rural areas, a judge is a respected member of the community. Judges want to use that position to let children know that someone other than a teacher does care about them, even if they may not have anyone at home who does. We judges want to be your backup,” Justice Davis told the teachers.

“Public schools have a broad mission. You must provide a thorough and efficient education to all. You must accept all students; each student is a unique bundle of hopes and problems. But you cannot solve the students’ problems. If they are abused, neglected, hungry, or afraid, you need the help of social services and the court system,” she said. “We want to help you. You cannot teach children if they are not in school.”

Justice Davis noted that many judges who have truancy prevention programs are some of the most experienced judges in West Virginia.