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In the Sarasota County school district, truancy court is in session

judge speaking at the podium
Nancy Guan
/
WUSF
Judge Andrea McHugh of the 12th Judicial Circuit is running Sarasota County's truancy court. She said her goal is to rehabilitate students and their families.

The district is taking students and parents to truancy court to find the most hard-to-reach families in the midst of a national absenteeism crisis.

On the sixth floor of the Sarasota County Judicial Center, Sonia Ramos and her son sit quietly in the courtroom, waiting for the judge to enter.

Her son, who we’re keeping anonymous at her request, has so far missed about half the school year, a violation of the state’s school attendance laws and the reason they’ve been called to truancy court.

It's Feb. 22, and they’re among the first families to attend truancy hearings in the county.

In Florida, districts have the option to set up truancy court within their county's judicial system. Hillsborough, Pinellas and Manatee already utilize truancy court. The Sarasota County School District said this is its way of reengaging the most hard-to-reach families in the middle of a national absenteeism crisis.

“The purpose of this court is a problem-solving court — it is to solve that problem, rather than to implement any punishment. But it is something to be taken seriously.”
Judge Andrea McHugh

About a third of the students in Florida public schools were chronically absent, missing 10 percent of the previous school year. It’s a slight improvement from the years before but still much higher than the prepandemic level of 20 percent. Experts and educators point out that families are still dealing with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as contending with a cultural shift that’s eroded attendance as a priority.

Ramos said her son has struggled with his mental health and feeling welcome at school since the pandemic. The return to in-person instruction coincided with his transition into middle school, and life hasn’t been the same, Ramos said.

“When COVID hit, I think it changed a lot of things for a lot of students, not just my son,” Ramos said, “He just stopped wanting to go to school. It’s like a little pandemic of our kids in the school system right now. It’s unfortunate, it’s heartbreaking.”

Sarasota, like other districts, first started tackling absenteeism at the school level. They increased the number of counselors on campuses and placed a full-time school psychologist at each high school, according to Stephanie Vlahakis, the district’s Student Services Program Manager, who oversees truancy court.

Each school also has a dedicated attendance team made up of social workers, psychologists, counselors and administrators who work with kids and families individually on getting to class.

“At 10 unexcused absences within 90 calendar days, they’re automatically put on the schoolwide support team,” Vlahakis said. “We’re making phone calls, sending out letters, making home visits.”

sarasota county building and statue in front
Nancy Guan
/
WUSF
Sarasota County schools held the first truancy court hearing in February. School officials said it's their way of engaging the most at-risk families.

Throughout the process, Vlahakis said, the team tries to connect families with resources such as transportation, clean clothes for students, mental health services or other social services.

Because of these measures, attendance has improved, according to the district’s attendance dashboard. Absenteeism is 7.95% this school year compared with 8.18% through the same time last year.

But there are still families who fall through the cracks.

“We’re just trying to lay out everything on the table and figure out, ‘OK, what more can be done?’ ” Vlahakis said.

‘We want to figure out what is happening’

Judge Andrea McHugh begins the first hearing by telling students and their parents that the court is here to help them.

“The purpose of this court is a problem-solving court — it is to solve that problem, rather than to implement any punishment,” McHugh said. “But it is something to be taken seriously.”

Like other problem-solving courts, such as drug courts, the goal is remediation and connecting people to services or programs.

But, McHugh said, the court has the authority to ultimately issue punishments such as secure detention, community service or fines. Or the case could be referred to the state attorney, who would determine if criminal charges should be filed against parents.

“But all of our intentions are never to get to that point,” McHugh said. “The No. 1 priority is to find out what is the root cause. Generally, the school board has done a good job on the front end of these cases, and sometimes it just takes coming to court to get the family to engage.”

At the podium, McHugh asks Ramos’ son what’s keeping him from going to school. He doesn’t like going, he says. Ramos tells the judge she’s tried to get him to go to therapy, but it’s difficult.

McHugh drafts a plan for them to get connected with some of the youth services in the courthouse. One of the benefits of truancy court, McHugh told WUSF afterward, is having school officials, community organizations and the family all in one room.

chairs and table in a court room in the Sarasota county judicial center
Nancy Guan
/
WUSF
The sixth floor of the Sarasota County Judicial Center is where students and parents go to attend truancy court hearings. Media was not allowed to take photos of minors and their families.

At the end of the hearing, McHugh gently but firmly tells Ramos’ son that he’s being ordered to go to school.

After the hearing, Ramos said that her son at one point was seeing a therapist, but then that person left the job. Finding another adult the boy can trust has been tough.

“I always wake up and tell him how he's somebody,” she said. “Some days are better than others, but you just got to keep going.”

Advocates warn against court intervention

Some advocates argue that court intervention can do more harm than good, especially for families from low-income communities and for Black, Latino, Native American and immigrant families.

Nina Salomon is with the group The Council of State Governments, which helps to improve outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.

Salomon pointed to research that shows kids who skip school or commit other minor offenses such as running away, violating curfew or drinking underage, should not be punished through legal sanctions or juvenile confinement.

“We have to look at the root causes of behavior and why kids are not attending before using the hammer," Salomon said.

National data shows that the number of truancy cases handled in juvenile court is trending down. In 2021, about 29,600 cases were petitioned, a 10% decrease from the previous year.

Several states across the country have moved away from criminalizing truancy or made it harder to send kids to juvenile court for that reason by mandating intervention plans.

Florida law mandates that "all less restrictive interventions must be exhausted" before court involvement.

“I think there’s something about going before a judge that says, ‘You need to do this.' And nine times out of 10, the kids are back in school on a more regular basis. And the judge is following up and doing progress monitoring.”
Keith Oswald, chief of equity and wellness, Palm Beach County School District

But districts can vary widely in how they define unexcused absences and treat kids who miss a large number of school days.

Vlahakis maintained that the Sarasota district is sending truancy letters as a last resort.

“We've had a lot of success stories where children are starting to attend, because they want to avoid truancy court,” Vlahakis said. "We just needed something more proactive prior to filing criminal charges or getting to the point where we're going to lose these kids."

School and court officials refer to truancy court as the last stop before prosecution. Without it, if cases were dire enough, a parent could be summoned to the State Attorney’s Office directly. There, they could be criminally prosecuted for their child’s absences. That’s a second-degree misdemeanor, which can come with fines or even jail time.

The Palm Beach County School District started its truancy court a little over a year ago with the same goal of helping, not punishing, families. Keith Oswald, chief of Equity and Wellness, said it has seen success by combining the persuasive power of the court and the community’s social services.

“I think there’s something about going before a judge that says, ‘You need to do this,' ” Oswald said. “And nine times out of 10, the kids are back in school on a more regular basis. And the judge is following up and doing progress monitoring.”

Oswald acknowledged that the reasons behind absenteeism are complicated.

“No two cases are the same, and they’re all challenging,” he said. “Our families are going through a lot, and the pandemic has hit some worse than others. Sometimes the parent is in a circumstance where they’re not able to take care of their kids, and we’ve had to move toward more court intervention.”

Attendance has to be a priority, Vlahakis said. “We can’t teach the kids when they’re not in class.”

But treating nonattendance as something that needs to be punished has always had pitfalls, according to experts. Clea McNeely is a research professor at the University of Tennessee. Her work involves evaluating programs to improve school attendance.

“We’re referring kids to court for missing school for reasons they have no control over,” McNeely said.

In her research, McNeely found that absences from racial minorities were more likely to be marked as unexcused. Compared with white middle class students, Black, Hispanic and Native American students — groups that experience poverty at disproportionate levels — were more likely to be disciplined for unexcused absences.

A common example is if a student is out sick.

“It depends on the school district or the school, but you have to have a note from the doctor or health professional,” McNeely said. “Well, some people don't have a way to get to the doctor, don't have access, don't even have any medical care, don't have insurance. They can't get that note.”

graph showing excused absences reasoning
Courtesy
/
SageJournals
School districts are less likely to excuse absences for reasons that many racial minority students might miss school for.

She acknowledged that, in some cases, the threat of punishment does deter kids who willfully skip school. But when families are dealing with poverty, racism, mental health or disabilities, “punitive responses push students out.” In other words, according to McNeely, punishing the symptoms of systemic problems is damaging.

This is why investment at preventative levels is preferred, Salomon said.

“Even if it's a problem-solving court, just that interaction with the court system automatically increases the likelihood that that young person or family will get into contact with the court system again in the future,” Salomon said.

Back to court

It’s March 21, a month after the first hearing. Ramos and her son are back in court for their check-in.

School officials tell the judge that Ramos’ son is coming in some days, but he’s often late. Ramos says she’s still trying to get counseling services set up, but the process is slow.

McHugh said she recognizes their efforts but ends up giving her Ramos’ son a sanction: a two-page essay on his future goals and another check-in date for April.

“It is nerve-wracking,” Ramos said. “But hopefully something will get resolved by the time we come back next month.”

Ramos said she wishes that truancy court had been an option before. It might have prevented her from being summoned to criminal court. Last year, she was charged with a second-degree misdemeanor because her son had missed so much school, according to court records.

"I've been asking, and I've been seeking for the last three school years for help,” she said. “I'm glad that they do have this open, but it just came shy of me already being put on probation."

She had to pay nearly $400 in court fees and take a parenting class.

“And it's not even teaching the child anything,” she said.

But she also wonders if this time will be different. She worries what will happen if her son doesn't comply. Will he be sent to the detention center?

A week after the second hearing, Ramos talks about waking her son up for school.

“Every morning, it's rough trying to get him up to get to school on time,” she said.

But this morning he arose.

“I was happy and pleased with that. You know, and I always try to encourage him to have a good day and just do the best that you can do."

As WUSF's general assignment reporter, I cover a variety of topics across the greater Tampa Bay region.
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