Part of Pete Swafford’s duties as Sequatchie County Schools administrator is taking truants to juvenile court.
“I was going to court all the time,” said Mr. Swafford, assistant superintendent for the small, rural district nestled in the Sequatchie Valley. “It was something (Sequatchie Juvenile Court Judge Tommy Austin) and I talked about. We needed a step before we took kids to court. We were notifying parents and then getting to court and finding out there were extenuating situations.”
Their conversation led to a truancy board composed of representatives from the school district, Juvenile Court, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and the community.
“We meet about five or six times a year,” Mr. Swafford said. About 30 children were at the most recent meeting last week along with their parents, he said.
Retired educator and school board member Sammye Finley said the truancy board provides a way to communicate in a nonthreatening environment.
“I feel like it’s a support network, and it’s a chance for parents and students to say, ‘This is why my child has been out of school,’” Ms. Finley said.
“Maybe the child is having issues that they haven’t verbalized to parents and it’s time to bring it out in the open,” she said. “Most parents are grateful there is a front line to keep from going directly to the juvenile system.”
Some Tennessee school districts have social workers who deal with truancy. They help students and families who have problems, such as not having a school uniform or lunch money, that cause the child to miss school.
The final resort is citing children and their parents to Juvenile Court, where parents may be fined up to $50 and a child may be ordered to attend school.
Sequatchie County does not have a social worker, so the truancy board is there to highlight problems and solutions, such as after-school makeup work, members said.
“I believe (children) are worth saving, and they need to know the community cares and we want them to be successful,” Ms. Finley said.
WHAT IT MEANS
Tennessee law defines truancy as five or more unexcused absences during the 180-day school year. Local school boards have some leeway in defining excused absences. Acceptable excuses include illness, death in the family or prior approval of an educational activity.
Source: Tennessee Department of Education