Appleton's truancy fight heads to school board; here are links to a more humane, pro-active path forward

August 8, 2019

Monday, Aug. 12 is a big day in the ongoing debate about how the Appleton Area School District handles truancy cases going forward. The issue exploded last year when the Rev. Alvin Dupree, a school board member, led an effort to bring public eyes to how habitually truant students in the district were being treated by the district's truancy court -- students being handcuffed and marched out of school, being sent to shelter care, sometimes without their parents' knowledge, being ordered to wear GPS ankle bracelets and being belittled and bullied by an Outagamie County circuit judge. The public uproar led to the school's truancy court being dissolved earlier this year. An Advisory Truancy Task Force has been studying next steps. The topic returns to the school board at the the 6 p.m. Monday meeting (at the Scullen Leadership Center, 122 E. College Avenue, Suite 1A). Advocates are asking the district to move away from its harsh discipline-focused approach to truancy and instead put efforts toward understanding and treating the underlying causes of a student's truancy, working with health and social services resources instead of immediately accelerating these students' paths into the criminal justice system. It's an ongoing fight, though, as a number of school board members, school district officials and representatives of the Appleton Police Department have expressed support for continuing a truancy program that puts citations and related punishment front and center, meaning we could be right back where we started in very short order. The State of Washington went through similar debates five years ago, and the resulting study offers us a path forward.

The Washington State Truancy Benchbook emerged as a bonafide, results-driven alternative to handling truant students in a much more pro-active, constructive and humane manner. Advocates, including John Wiley, author of "Bottom Half Teens: A Caring Community-Driven Solution Designed to Rescue Young Lives Trapped in a Broken System" (bottomhalfteens.com), are pushing the district to thoroughly study and possibly adopt all or part of the Washington State Truancy Benchbook plan. Below are links to give you important information:

Washington State Truancy Benchbook (April 2014, 78 pages): http://www.courts.wa.gov/content/manuals/TruancyBenchbook.pdf

Spokane County Tool Kit for Community Truancy Board Replication (courtesy of Models for Change): http://www.modelsforchange.net/publications/475

Juvenile Justice Geography, Policy, Practice, and Statistics: http://www.jjgps.org/

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The Washington State Truancy Benchbook is created as a tool for other states and/or school districts to follow. Consider the advisements in the introduction to the report from Patricia Clark, King County Superior Court Judge (Ret.):

"In 1995 the Washington State Legislature provided parents with tools to assist in the raising and educating of their children.  These laws, created in response to the murder of 12-year-old truant and runaway Becca Hedman, are referred to as the “Becca laws” or “Becca.” The laws created mechanisms to provide interventions for truant and at-risk youth. The Becca laws also require schools to take proactive steps to keep children in school and to file truancy petitions if the school’s interventions fail. Interestingly, the legislature placed the courts in the position of analyzing a child’s needs, reinforcing parental interventions and prescribing further interventions or sanctions as needed. In the early days, the courts turned to contempt and detention to force children to attend school and follow parental instructions.  As the initial flood of cases came into the court, judicial officers struggled to find a way to effectively and quickly address the issues they were seeing in these young lives. Over time it became clear that the issues impacting the children and families covered by the Becca law ran the gamut from very simple scheduling concerns to child and/or parent substance abuse, child and/or parent mental health problems, bullying at school, learning disabilities or a myriad of consequences of poverty.  We learned that truancy was most often the red flag indicating very complex issues in families and children’s lives. We learned that the standard judicial tools of contempt and detention had limited impact on addressing the issues which were causing the behaviors. We learned that the court needed to order services and interventions that actually responded to the needs of the family and had a positive impact on the behavior of the parties. We learned that detention is not the first or the best answer. This Benchbook is a compilation of the learning since Becca was passed, with a focus on truancy.  The Benchbook is designed to assist judicial officers, court personnel, and practitioners to better address the issues faced by the Becca population. The Benchbook covers changes in the law, as well as a societal shift towards upstream, less punitive interventions with a clearer focus on getting students back in school and keeping them out of court. As you use this Benchbook please spend time on the sections devoted to the underlying causes of truancy and on the various and appropriate interventions available. Use this Benchbook as a tool to start discussions with your peers across the state, your community and your staff members. We have learned a lot over the years.  Our children deserve the best we know how to give."

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These are words that can help guide the Appleton Area School District as they venture down this same path. But they need to have the foresight and wisdom and strength to adopt this new approach. It takes a commitment from the district, from law enforcement, and from the community to make this work. The alternative is to continue down the same path we've been on the past 10 years, treating juvenile truants as criminals, pushed aside as someone else's problem. We can and must do better. The State of Washington report and the Spokane tool kit give us a path forward.

Wiley calls this a significant opportunity for the school board and school administrators to step forward and do the right thing. If giving these students who are often dealing with a complexity of issues -- poverty, family dysfunction, mental health, bullying, among them -- a fighting chance to build a productive future is indeed a desire of the school district, changes need to happen now. It isn't going to happen overnight, but there is a way forward.

"This is a significant community commitment that requires time to study and implement," Wiley says of the Washington report.

Kicking students to the criminal justice system over truancy issues without properly exploring and addressing underlying factors is a slap in the face to anyone who believes in the integrity of the public education system.

"There is a big difference between justice and punishment," Wiley says.

Monday's meeting hopefully will be a step in the right direction, including the forming of more constructive partnerships between the school district, the county, the city and community organizations.

"We need transparency," Wiley says.

Please speak up at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 12 to let your voice be heard.

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