Getting tough on truancy: Students in Becker County who are chronically absent may end up in truancy court
DETROIT LAKES — Truancy rates are getting out of hand, and school districts in Becker County are cracking down this school year.
The Detroit Lakes, Lake Park-Audubon and Frazee-Vergas school districts are working with the Becker County Attorney's Office on a new truancy policy with sharper teeth: A workgroup of school and county employees have met multiple times over the past year to work on the county’s truancy process and have a plan for the 2022-23 School Year.
More than four in 10 Detroit Lakes students, for example, were considered chronically absent last school year, said Detroit Lakes High School Assistant Principal Justin Messer, whose job has included truancy issues for the last 10 years.
“Chronically absent” is defined as missing more than 10% of the year, or more than 16 days of Detroit Lakes’ 165- to 168-day school calendar, he said.
From 2010 to 2020, the chronic absence rate at Detroit Lakes Schools hovered around 20% — but that rate has soared since the COVID-19 pandemic, Messer said.
“COVID sent it up into the 40% rate,” from March of 2020, when school shutdowns started due to COVID precautions, through May of 2021, he said. That was bad enough, but what really has school officials alarmed is that things didn’t get better, even after COVID-19 shutdowns ended.
“Last year was the first normal year after all the COVID stuff,” Messer said. “But it (the truancy rate) didn’t go back to 20% — it stayed in the 40% range.”
To varying degrees, it's a nationwide problem, he said, as normal life stumbled for many families and bad attendance habits developed over the course of the pandemic.
It’s the law
Minnesota law basically requires kids to be in school until they're 18, and if families don’t make sure their kids are in class, the district court may have to get involved as a last resort, said Becker County Attorney Brian McDonald.
“It's pretty simple — attendance equals success,” he said. “We want kids in school.”
The Becker County Attorney’s Office has rarely filed truancy petitions in family court, “even way back before my time,” McDonald said. But if students and families don’t start working with school officials to solve the problem, that is going to change.
A judge, after all, can order all kinds of things — from confiscation of gaming systems, cellphones and driver’s licenses to various types of counseling, fines and much more. “That’s an absolute last resort,” McDonald said. “We don’t want to end up in court.”
Messer agreed that the district doesn’t want to pursue court action, but said: “It may be the only way to get a student the help they need.”
It hurts the whole school when kids are chronically absent — teachers have to go over lessons repeatedly before they can move on, and group projects become a problem.
“We have to spend way more time intervening with kids who were absent,” Messer said. And it hurts the chronically absent teen, too, he added. Many kids are already struggling with anxiety, depression and feelings of hopelessness, and “if you’re always behind in class, it’s not a good feeling — you’re burying yourself. It’s possible that attendance issues are contributing to students’ mental health issues.”
It’s also tough to shine at academics when you aren’t in class — and showing up is more important than some might think. “A student’s attendance rate is a better predictor of success in school, and in life, than their test scores,” Messer said. “But things that worked in the past (to improve attendance) quit working in the last three years.”
Changes ahead this school year
With that in mind, changes are coming in the Detroit Lakes School District’s truancy and educational neglect policy. It used to be that the school district sent out a first notification, the “three day letter” to parents emphasizing the problem. Then a more formal notification called a “seven-day letter” informing the parents, and the student, that “you are truant and liable for the consequences of being truant,” Messer said. “By then, we’ve already talked to the kids about it, everyone’s aware (there’s a problem).”
At that point, parents and kids were required to attend truancy-prevention meetings, held every month or two throughout the school year at the county attorney’s office in the courthouse. Representatives from the school district, Becker County Human Services child protection and the county attorney’s office would also be there. Each family had a 30-minute block of time set up. But the families often didn’t show up. “Last year there were some who went zero for three, zero for four, (meetings) for the year,” Messer said.
The county attorney’s office is on the third floor of the courts annex in the courthouse and requires going through a metal detector and talking to a security screener at the courthouse entrance. “An intimidation factor may have prevented some parents from showing up,” McDonald said.
For whatever reason, the school district has had better luck with getting families to show up for those mandatory truancy prevention meetings since it started holding them at the high school this spring, Messer said.
Intervening early and quickly
Those meetings will stay at the high school when the new truancy-prevention process kicks in on Sept. 6, the first day of school.
The plan is to be much more proactive and fast-acting with truancy cases, Messer said. “Now a (truancy-prevention) meeting will be set up after the three-day letter is sent out; we won’t have to wait until after the seven-day letter to set up a meeting with the county,” he said. “Teachers will be making contact early and often with parents (of absent students), which they’ve done in the past, but we’re trying to make it more efficient and effective now.”
A contract between the family and the school district will be established, and if the truancy problem persists, the family will end up in truancy court, where a judge will make sure the contract is followed.
There are all kinds of reasons middle school and high school students might be missing school: Anxiety, conflict with a teacher or peers, depression, transportation problems, drugs, academic struggles, vaping, appointment-scheduling, recent homelessness, frequent illness, helping family with work or babysitting — even lack of sleep is surprisingly high on the list, Messer said.
“A good percentage of students with attendance problems have sleep issues,” Messer said. Teens need eight to 10 hours of sleep a day to function well, he added. “They’re not sleeping well, or they’re staying up until 1 a.m. playing video games. Sleep issues are a major thing — they have a dramatic impact on your level of focus, the ability to get things done the next day.”
Some solutions are as simple as ending screen time an hour before bed and turning off cell phones and video games, Messer said. “A lot of these attendance issues are easy fixes,” he said. “We could realistically get truancy down to 10%.”
For problems with things like transportation, health, homelessness, mental health, chemical dependency and pregnancy, the school district offers referrals to local resources. But that help is not always accepted. That’s where truancy court could help. “We can offer services,” Messer said. “But a judge can order services.”
On top of that, the Detroit Lakes School District is offering carrots as well as sticks — including rewards for good attendance, and more classes and intern opportunities geared to kids who might be more interested in learning a trade, making an excellent living, and avoiding high college debt, Messer said. “We are definitely reevaluating how we do things in the building, as far as making things more meaningful to kids,” he added.
Messer and others on the truancy team have been working on the new policy for about a year. “Justin has put a lot of work into this,” McDonald said. “Without the help of everyone on the team: the judges, attorneys, human service workers and school employees, this process would not have been updated,” Messer said.
If it works, it will be worth it, he added. Studies show that attendance makes a huge difference in academic outcomes. “Out of all the kids, those with the best grades had good attendance,” he said. “It’s almost impossible to fail a class or not graduate if you have good attendance.”