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As Approaches Change, Vermont Schools Still Struggle To Reduce Truancy

Advocates say community-based efforts to reduce absenteeism can be more effective than punitive ones, but some Vermont schools that have tried a new approach are facing challenges.

Vermont law allows parents to be fined and taken to court when a child is truant from school. Many say that’s counterproductive, but even at schools that take a more hands-on approach, truancy remains a difficult problem to solve. 

That was the message delivered to members of the state’s Child Poverty Council last month.

Jay Diaz of the American Civil Liberties Union said Vermont is ahead of many states, but the law still favors a more punitive approach to truancy.  

Diaz told council members that he was an education attorney before he joined ACLU. He said he’s represented truant students in court and seen the results firsthand.

“Most of these cases just go on and on and on for a year. Then the school year ends and the case closes. The court does a lot of finger-wagging, but that’s typically all it does. We can do better than this,” he said.

There isn’t much data available, but in 2013, 134 truancy cases were taken to court. That’s an incomplete picture, though, because charges aren’t filed in most cases. 

Diaz says even when the legal system isn’t involved, school policies such as suspending students for missing classes are counterproductive.

He said what’s needed is a more personalized approach designed to fix whatever is causing the truancy. And he said there can be many causes: problems at home, lack of transportation, homelessness and problems at school, such as bullying.

"The court does a lot of finger-wagging, but that's typically all it does. We can do better than this." - Jay Diaz, ACLU-VT

Diaz said by working collaboratively with social workers and other local services, schools can identify why a student isn’t attending classes and try to find a solution.

There have been a number of studies coming out about the effectiveness of collaborative community-school based programs to prevent the need for courts to be involved in truancy and get better outcomes – get kids attending school," he said. "That is the goal of this work."

Diaz pointed to community-based efforts to reduce absenteeism, like a program in Lamoille County.

And it’s not the only example.

Tracy Watterson of the Agency of Education told the council that many schools are using approaches that encourage positive behavior, and they’re building partnerships with local agencies that work directly with families.

Watterson said the laws around truancy should reflect that approach.  

"We would like to suggest that we look for some restorative solutions to [the] statute around truancy, which tends to be more punitive." - Tracy Watterson, Vermont Agency of Education

“We would like to suggest that we look for some restorative solutions to some of the statute around truancy, which tends to be more punitive,” she told council members.

“We’re suggesting that perhaps we could look at, in lieu of having a parent and a family be fined, that we have them take a parenting course, or we help them with other kinds of resources or make connections to community partners that can help them," Watterson said.

But the complexity and the challenges of dealing with truancy came into stark focus through the testimony of two school principals who spoke to the council by phone.

Andrew Paciulli has been principal of the K-6 Academy School in Brattleboro for 33 years.

Paciulli said there’s a link between absenteeism and poverty: Eighty percent of the chronically-absent students at his school qualify for free and reduced lunches.

"Unfortunately, a growing number of parents have so many needs that often they lack the ability to get themselves up in the morning to get a child ready for school." - Andrew Paciulli, Brattleboro K-6 Academy School principal

He said with elementary school-aged children, the problem usually lies with the parents.

“Unfortunately, a growing number of parents have so many needs that often they lack the ability to get themselves up in the morning to get a child ready for school,” said Paciulli.

Last year, Paciulli’s school hired a social worker to develop relationships with families and work with them. He says that’s been helpful, but it’s still a struggle dealing absenteeism.

The problem is even more daunting in the Franklin County town of Richford.

Beth O’Brien, principal of the town’s junior-senior high school, told the council a significant number of students were chronically-absent last school year.

"We've become an arm of the social service agencies, because there are no social services up here." - Beth O’Brien, Richford Junior-Senior High School principal

“I had 13 percent of our students that were absent more than 20 days,” said O’Brien.

In her 18 years as a principal, O’Brien said she hasn’t seen any family taken to court over truancy, but the community-based approach is difficult.

She said many social services are 45 minutes away in St. Albans.

“We’re meeting regularly with parents. I started an alternative program where kids have more say in what they’re doing. We allow online learning. We help with transportation,” O’Brien explained. “In our case, we’ve become an arm of the social service agencies, because there are no social services up here.”

O’Brien said 26 students were absent more than 20 days last year, and despite all the efforts to get them back in class, it’s an uphill battle.

“I think we made a difference in eight out of 26 cases last year. Six out of 26 have dropped out already, and I expect two more to because no matter what I’m doing, it doesn’t make difference,” she told council members.

Truancy is one of many issues the Vermont Child Poverty Council is looking into. In January, the council will make its recommendations to lawmakers and it’s unclear at this point whether changes to truancy laws will be one of them.

Steve has been with VPR since 1994, first serving as host of VPR’s public affairs program and then as a reporter, based in Central Vermont. Many VPR listeners recognize Steve for his special reports from Iran, providing a glimpse of this country that is usually hidden from the rest of the world. Prior to working with VPR, Steve served as program director for WNCS for 17 years, and also worked as news director for WCVR in Randolph. A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Steve also worked for stations in Phoenix and Tucson before moving to Vermont in 1972. Steve has been honored multiple times with national and regional Edward R. Murrow Awards for his VPR reporting, including a 2011 win for best documentary for his report, Afghanistan's Other War.
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