Judicial system plans truancy strategy

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Effort seeks to get kids back in school, out of jail

By Ramsey Scott

A two-year grant will help the judicial system in Jefferson County identify the causes of truancy and help steer youths away from jail and back to the classroom.

The grant, worth up to $70,000 a year, will fund implementation a problem-solving approach similar to family and drug courts. The focus is on treatment and on providing services that address underlying problems. 

A student is defined as truant when he has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 unexcused absences in a school year. But those absences usually have nothing to do with what’s going on in the classroom, said Meg Williams, a manager with the state Division of Criminal Justice. 

“They come with a myriad of issues. They may have abuse and neglect issues, they may have issues of substance abuse or mental health …,” Williams said. “Sending them to detention is not going to get them to go back to school. In fact, the more time they spend out of school, the less likely they are to return.”

Jeffco has 250 to 350 cases of truancy a year, said Lisa Mumma, the school district’s truancy administrator. About 45 of those students end up serving time in the youth detention center, mostly for failure to appear in court. 

Under the new system, which will be in place next school year, the district attorney’s office and the courts will work to assess why a student has become truant, Mumma said.

Meanwhile, nonprofit agencies such as the Jefferson Center for Mental Health will connect students and families with resources to address the underlying issues keeping kids out of school. 

“Kids would go to truancy court and six weeks later come back. They were ordered to get mental health services or substance abuse evaluation, and they didn’t do it because they didn’t know whom to call,” Williams said. “These case managers will help with that. The goal is getting kids out of truancy court.”

Magistrate Jamin Alabiso, who helped write the grant application, confirmed how severe the problems can be.

“In one case recently, I had a student that missed 70 out of 134 days of school,” Alabiso said. “The kids who miss four days in a month aren’t showing up in my courtroom.” 

Alabiso said that putting a student in a detention center for missing school only creates more problems, including the likelihood of that youth being incarcerated again at some point. 

“The research clearly shows that incarcerating a status offender creates more harm to the status offender than it does good. It is not a deterrent to the conduct you’re trying to reduce,” Alabiso said. “They are about two times more likely to be incarcerated again at some point in their lives.”

The 1st Judicial District, which covers Jefferson and Gilpin counties, is one of three districts in the state to receive the grant. The funding is tied to a law passed last year by the state legislature aimed at curbing imprisonment related to truancy.