Petitions on truancy filed against eight students
URBANA – At least eight young people in Champaign County will have a bona fide New Year's resolution to make, and a judge to help them keep it.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz has filed truancy petitions against eight students from four different Champaign County schools alleging that they have missed at least 10 percent of their classes this school year, or 18 days.
The eight are being summoned Jan. 2 to the courtroom of Judge Heidi Ladd, where they will be admonished on the petitions and the judge will spell out what they need to do and the consequences of not obeying court orders.
Rietz explained that once the students have been found by the judge to be chronically truant, they would be placed on court supervision and ordered to attend school and cooperate with services.
"If they don't follow the court orders, then we could bring them back into court and revoke their supervision and ultimately they could be sentenced to the detention center, which has a school, where we know they will be going to school on a daily basis," she said.
Although truancy petitions in court are not rare and Rietz has filed some in the past, it is not the first choice for school administrators or prosecutors to employ in trying to get students into the classroom, she said.
"In the two years I've been in office, we've tried to come up with a variety of different solutions to resolve the truancy problem," said Rietz. "There is definitely a push by the federal government to not have status offenders held in juvenile detention centers."
Truancy is considered a status offense – usually nonviolent offenses for which an offender is held accountable for his actions on the basis of his age like a curfew violation. Detention centers can risk the loss of federal or grant funding if they fill their beds with too many status offenders, said Joe Gordon, director of Champaign County Court Services.
For students who have been identified by the Regional Office of Education as almost hitting the chronic truant level, there is a program called "Abolish Chronic Truancy" or ACT.
"We send out a letter on my letterhead to the parents asking them to come to the courthouse and attend a meeting," Rietz said. "I speak to the students and parents and I tell them that my job is to file criminal charges and that by not going to school they are committing a crime. I also speak to the parents and tell them they have a responsibility to make sure their children go to school and if they don't live up to their responsibility, the Department of Children and Family Services could become involved or we could file Class B misdemeanor charges against them."
Rietz said she's not filed the misdemeanor charges against anyone, but last year did file neglect petitions in juvenile court against parents whose children were truant, which triggered involvement by DCFS.
"The problem is that if the children don't comply, the next step would be considering removing them from their homes and putting them in foster care. That is not necessarily a good solution, either," she said.
However, DCFS can identify other problems in the home that may cause a child not to go to school and try to get services for the family to resolve those.
Although that met with some success, Rietz prefers the neglect approach only for those families that have a plethora of problems like substance abuse or violence. And because a student can legally drop out at 17, she said, it makes more sense to concentrate resources on the younger students, given the length of time it can take for cases to wind through the court system
"There's two types of families: ones where the kids won't go to school and parents are doing everything they can and ones where kids aren't going to school and parents are not contributing to (getting them there)," she said. "We rely on the school attendance coordinators to help us understand what the situation is."
School officials inform the Regional Office of Education about who is truant and efforts that have been made to get the child to school. The regional office folks then contact the state's attorney to file truancy petitions.
The petitions Rietz filed last week were against four students at Champaign Central High School; and one each from READY School, an alternative school in Champaign; Pathway, an alternative school in Rantoul; J.W. Eater Middle School in Rantoul; and Edison Middle School in Champaign.
"This is more of a concerted effort. We're filing these all together with the hope that we can come up with a consistent approach and send a message to the kids that if they don't go to school, we're going to respond," Rietz said. "Right now, I think they think it's a joke. They don't think anything happens."