New truancy law aims to keep kids out of court, juvenile detention

Members of the Puyallup School District’s truancy board interview a student and his mother at a hearing at the school district’s office in downtown Puyallup in November. The truancy board meetings involve representatives from the schools, the court system and school district.
Members of the Puyallup School District’s truancy board interview a student and his mother at a hearing at the school district’s office in downtown Puyallup in November. The truancy board meetings involve representatives from the schools, the court system and school district. dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

School districts throughout Washington will soon need to do more to help truant kids before sending them to court to answer to a judge.

Starting in fall of 2017, school districts will be required to offer community truancy boards, an intervention that state lawmakers have long recommended to keep truant students out of court and juvenile detention. The News Tribune wrote about the practice in January as one that has helped school districts divert hundreds of kids from the court system.

Yet a 2015 survey found only about 17 percent of the state’s school districts used the boards, despite Washington leading the nation in how often judges jail children for noncriminal offenses like skipping school. As of January, Seattle and Tacoma — two of the largest school districts in the state — were among those not offering community truancy boards.

That is changing, after the Legislature approved legislation this year to require the truancy boards. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure, House Bill 2449, into law last month.

Now, school districts, including Seattle and Tacoma, are working to get their truancy boards ready in time for the 2017-18 school year.

Last month, Tacoma Public Schools began a truancy board pilot program at Jason Lee Middle School and Mount Tahoma High School. And the Peninsula School District — the only other Pierce County district that doesn’t operate a truancy board — is looking to start one as early as this fall.

The Olympia School District, which already had a truancy board program at its two main high schools, is applying for grant money to help expand it to comply with the law, a spokeswoman said.

Going forward, all but the smallest school districts — those with fewer than 200 students — will be required to offer the boards as a pre-court intervention.

“I think the biggest value of the truancy board is it gets to the real issue of why kids are truant or not going to school, whereas the courtroom doesn’t always get to the real issues,” said TJ Bohl, Pierce County’s juvenile court administrator.

Community truancy boards typically include counselors, school district officials, community volunteers and someone from the juvenile court, who all meet with a student and his or her family to develop a plan to improve the child’s attendance.

If children follow the plans developed by the truancy board, they’ll never have to appear before a judge — an experience experts say is unlikely to improve students’ attendance and can actually worsen their behavior.

Help offered by the community truancy boards can include connecting children to tutoring and counseling services, resolving their family’s problems with transportation, accommodating their medical needs or assigning them a mentor.

Under the state’s 20-year-old truancy law, known as the Becca Bill, schools must file truancy petitions in juvenile court for students who have seven unexcused absences in a month, or 10 unexcused absences in a year.

But with the changes to the law approved this year, school districts will now be required to put truancy petitions on hold for a period of time rather than immediately scheduling a court hearing.

Automatically staying those petitions will give school districts time to resolve a child’s attendance problems through the truancy board process and, it is hoped, get the petition dismissed before a child’s first court appearance, said Sen. Jim Hargrove, a Democrat from Hoquiam who worked on this year’s bill and was the original sponsor of the Becca Bill in 1995.

“It seems to me to be a way we can divert maybe 70, 80 percent of these kids who have petitions filed on them to a truancy board, where there hopefully will be better outcomes,” Hargrove said. “But we will still have a system that won’t allow anyone to slip through the cracks.”

The new law also looks to cut down on the number of children who are sent to juvenile detention for violating court orders in truancy cases. In addition to working to keep students out of court — a precursor to them being ordered into detention — the bill urges judges to place children in emergency shelters instead of detention when they disobey a court order to attend school.

“I think it’s been highlighted that we are such an outlier as far as the number of kids that go to detention for truancy or truancy-related issues,” said Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat from Des Moines who is the prime sponsor of House Bill 2449. “It kind of tells me that whatever system we put in place isn’t working for students and families.”

Orwall said a story last year in The News Tribune examining Washington’s system of detaining noncriminal youths “did a great job highlighting that it’s broken.”

Lawmakers also increased funding this year for shelter beds that can serve as alternatives to juvenile detention.

The state’s 2016 supplemental budget includes funding for 10 new beds at crisis residential centers, emergency shelters where judges can place at-risk children. Additionally, the budget includes about $1 million to pay for 23 new beds at HOPE centers, homeless youth shelters that can similarly serve as detention alternatives.

Yet school districts might have trouble finding money for the soon-to-be mandatory truancy boards. Approximately $350,000 was included in the state’s 2016 budget for grants to help districts begin offering the boards, but that won’t go very far when spread among the state’s 295 school districts, critics say.

“It’s one more of these mandates on local school districts,” said Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, one of six Republican lawmakers who voted against the legislation. “We keep taking up more and more teacher time, more and more administrative time, and we don’t give them any money to pay for this.”

Inslee vetoed a provision of Orwall’s bill that would have allowed school districts to fund truancy boards using up to 2 percent of the state funding they receive for remedial tutoring services. In his veto message, Inslee said he was concerned about taking money away from tutoring programs that help low-income students.

Lack of funding for the community truancy boards was one reason the Legislature opted to make them mandatory starting in 2017-18, instead of the upcoming 2016-17 school year, Orwall said.

Orwall said she hopes lawmakers will dedicate more money to helping schools start truancy boards in 2017, when they approve a new two-year budget.

“We need to come back to that next year,” she said.