Montgomery County students who repeatedly miss class are getting guidance from unlikely allies: local prosecutors and judges.
In a program that spread to the county from Baltimore in 2010, Montgomery County prosecutors and a local judge meet with students facing a range of attendance issues, from persistent lateness to chronic absence.
According to a report by Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight, “habitual truancy” is defined as missing 18 days in a semester or 36 days of school in a school year.
About 984 county public school students were habitually truant in 2009, including about 627 in high school, the report says. The same year, more than 8,600 students were chronically absent, missing 20 or more days of school.
Montgomery County ranks in the middle of the pack among Maryland counties’ habitual truancy rates.
The Truancy Court Program is in five Montgomery County middle schools: Neelsville and Roberto Clemente in Germantown; and Francis Scott Key, A. Mario Loiederman and Argyle, all in Silver Spring.
It is expected to start in a sixth next spring. Plans for a seventh school are also in the works.
County prosecutors and a district court judge serve as program “judges” — adults talk with students about the root of their problem and how to fix it.
Students meet weekly at their school with a group of adults that includes the program judge, as well as school staff and a mentor.
Schools invite students; families decide whether a child participates.
Students who show improvement in grades and attendance “graduate” from the program. Those who don’t graduate try again in the next 10-week session.
After hearing about a program started by the University of Baltimore called Truancy Court, Montgomery State’s Attorney John McCarthy asked about implementing it in Montgomery County.
“I thought if we could take a bite out of truancy, we would reduce youth-related crime,” he said.
Authorities say they don’t have exact numbers on how the program has helped lower juvenile crime rates, but according to a 2009 report created for the U.S. Department of Justice, truants are as much as 12 times more likely to report having committed a serious assault, as much as 21 times more likely to report having committed a serious property crime, and as much as seven times more likely to report having been arrested.
Unlike in Baltimore, where many truancy court judges are actual judges, in Montgomery County, prosecutors fill many “judge” roles.
George Simms — the head of the Montgomery County state’s attorney’s office’s Juvenile Division — is the judge at Loiederman.
“Traditionally, prosecutors only did one type of thing — waited for a crime to be committed, and then prosecuted the person accused of committing it,” Simms said. “Our job is really public safety. If we can do things to help protect the community, I think that is part of our job.”
In each of the 10 weekly sessions, students meet with a mentor and in the “court,” where the judge and others provide encouragement and review progress. They go over attendance, grades, performance and behavior.
Steve Neff, director of pupil personnel services for the county school system, said the school system has seen increases in truancy.
Circumstances outside school are a factor, Neff said.
“I think part of it,” he said, “is having to do with some of the challenges that families are facing” — housing, transportation, food and finances.
Habitual truancy rates have fluctuated over recent years, according to county school system data, but there has been a general increase.
From 2008-09 to 2012-13, the school system’s habitual truancy rate rose from 0.72 percent to 1.08 percent. Habitual truants, however, are only a fraction of the students with absentee problems.
For truants, Neff said, having someone outside of the school express an interest can make a huge difference.
Sometimes, solving basic problems does the trick. A child can’t wake up on time: there’s an alarm clock for that. Other times, it’s trickier.
Steve Chaikin, an assistant state’s attorney and the judge at Clemente Middle in Germantown, said he had a case in which a girl “knew this was her last chance” after getting into a fight. He talked to the child with her father, the school social worker and other members of the school’s truancy court.
Seven weeks later, she has had nearly perfect attendance and is passing three classes, Chaikin said.
“My favorite point is when we’re no longer talking about attendance issues, but talking about academic issues — that’s when we know it’s working,” he said.
The Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law created the Truancy Court Program in 2005, according to Barbara Babb, the center’s director.
In Maryland, she said, parents can be prosecuted criminally if their children do not attend school.
One Montgomery County mother recently spent a week in jail and must serve a year of supervised probation, after her daughter missed 48 percent of the 2012-13 school year at Piney Branch Elementary in Silver Spring, Assistant State’s Attorney Curt Zeager said.
The program expanded to Anne Arundel County in 2009 and to Montgomery and Baltimore counties in 2010.
Then, funding dried up. The program no longer exists in Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, according to Andrea Bento, a University of Baltimore School of Law student who helps administer Montgomery County’s program.
The Montgomery County Council allocated $52,000 for the program in fiscal 2013 and $78,000 in fiscal 2014 to continue and expand the program.
Truancy Court administrators say they target students in middle school because truancy rates often jump in sixth and ninth grades.
According to an Oct. 22 memorandum to the County Council’s education and public safety committees, data from Neelsville and Francis Scott Key showed an overall program graduation rate of 57 percent and a reduction in participants’ unexcused absences by about 60 percent in the fall of 2012.
The same memorandum said that about 63 percent of participants graduated from the program and reduced their unexcused absences by about 69 percent in the spring of 2013 when Neelsville, Francis Scott Key and Loiederman participated.
When the bell rings, Lizbeth Molina-Urias’ first thought is not always getting to class on time.
“I can get on time to class,” she said. “It’s just that, I don’t feel like it.”
The 13-year-old Argyle Middle eighth-grader is working on improving her attendance, along with 14 other seventh- and eighth-graders.
Since October, Lizbeth has gone to truancy program meetings each Friday.
“It’s awkward, but I go with it,” she said. “They, like, tell me my grades, how I’ve been. They tell me about compliments that my teachers say.”
Before the program, Lizbeth didn’t usually focus on her grades, but now she works to improve them.
Lizbeth said she writes about missing classwork in a journal she received through the program — one of a variety of prizes the students can get. Students receive small incentives if they show improvement, according to program administrators.
Argyle principal Robert Dodd said his school joined because he thought it would provide “another layer of support” for students and parents.
The 15 students in the program had five or more unexcused absences or had “excessive tardiness” last year, he said. A recent report from the school shows that 10 of the 15 students have missed no more than two days of classes this year.
A seventh-grader who was absent 23.5 days last year has only been absent twice and has a first marking period GPA of 3.12, nearly a full point higher than the student’s GPA for the fourth marking period last year.
Tiffany Awkard, assistant principal at Clemente, said the seventh- and eighth-grade students in the school’s first-ever session this fall were absent about 15 to 25 times last school year.
Awkard said that for many Clemente students in the program, truancy stems from academic issues. Some students don’t want to go to class because they’re not performing well.
Awkard said the school already had seen an improvement in students’ attendance and attitude.
At Neelsville, Principal Vicky Lake-Parcan said about a dozen out of 30 potential students from all three grades are participating.
Some Neelsville students have said they don’t attend school because they don’t feel well. Others have anxiety issues or are responsible for getting themselves up and ready for school, she said.
“If they’re not feeling successful or feeling like this isn’t where they want to be, it’s really easy for them to just stay in bed and not come to school,” she said.
Lake-Parcan said the program addresses absenteeism and truancy before a student goes to the county Truancy Review Board, a multi-agency group that can refer parents of truant children to the state’s attorney’s office.
On Nov. 20, during the last day of their program session, Clemente students met with Chaikin and others for final thoughts on their progress.
Most participating students graduated from Clemente’s program on Nov. 20. Two will continue in the next program session starting in January.
The students who graduated reduced their number of unexcused absences by at least 65 percent.
“You all now have the tools to be successful, to be on time, to do well,” Chaikin told them. “You all have one thing in common: unlimited potential.”