Fixing 'serious' truancy problem: Hamilton County courts, schools set out to address 44% rate

photo Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith is seen in this file photo.

WHAT'S NEXTThe task force agreed to meet quarterly, beginning Oct. 15.ABOUT THE TASK FORCENine of the 17 task force members came from the education side, while four were a part of the courts staff. The remaining members were from the police, sheriff, and district attorney's office and the Department of Children's Services.COMPARING TRUANCY NUMBERSSchool District 2013 2012 2011Hamilton 18,197 truant; 41,699 students; 44 percent 48 percent 29 percentKnox 20,957 truant; 55,796 students; 38 percent 38 percent 39 percentDavidson 29,131 truant; 76,249 students; 38 percent 33 percent 34 percentShelby/Memphis 55,385 truant; 143,849 students; 39 percent 27 percent 22 percentSource: Tennessee Department of Education

The head of Hamilton County Schools and the county's Juvenile Court judge are putting their heads together over how to stop years of finger-pointing and miscommunication and fix problems with how truant students are handled.

They are working from a report submitted Wednesday by a 17-member task force highlighting loopholes and a start-to-finish assessment of problems with how truancy cases are tracked, reported and resolved.

"This is a very serious problem," School Superintendent Rick Smith said.

"We're not the bad guy and the court's not the bad guy. We're doing the best that we can to ensure that child gets a good education," Smith said. "When you see a person who hasn't gotten a good education, we're all paying for it."

Prosecutor Boyd Patterson, who worked on the task force, has headed anti-gang efforts and now does Juvenile Court work for the Hamilton County District Attorney's Office, made a clear connection.

Addressing truancy can hopefully pull back the student on the brink of crime, preventing the next aggravated assault, robbery or drive-by shooting, he said.

Hamilton County has the highest percentage of truant students -- defined as having more than five unexcused absences -- among the four most-populous Tennessee school districts, according to the report. The next highest was the recently merged Shelby County and Memphis City School system, with 39 percent last year and 27 percent the previous year, state education department data show.

Truancy is a perennial problem. More than 18,000 Hamilton County students -- 44 percent -- were truant last year, down slightly from 48 percent the previous school year, the report said. But Smith and Juvenile Court Judge Rob Philyaw said the report is the first step in an unprecedented effort to begin fixing the truancy system.

A broken system

Despite the county's thousands of truants, just 202 truancy cases were heard in Hamilton County Juvenile Court last year. Typically, only the most severe cases wind up in court, where parents can be fined or even jailed for their children's failure to attend school.

And cases that do make it to court often are dismissed for lack of documentation or prosecution, task force members said.

Unfortunately, Smith noted, behavioral problems and parents' attitudes can begin to influence a student to think anti-school as early as second grade.

Those attitudes can affect grades, graduation, future job prospects and funding for schools, whose attendance numbers count toward state money allocations.

The report describes a system so dysfunctional that simple questions, such as how many unexcused absences a certain student has, can't be answered. It notes vast differences in how schools define and document truancy.

State law says parents who won't make their kids go to school may be fined $50, jailed for up to 30 days or required to do community service.

But if the most basic information in school records, such as the student's actual address, isn't accurate, then the entire process of building documenting truancy, alerting parents and sending noncompliant parents to court, is hamstrung.

Students' addresses or phone numbers may change during the year but they don't notify the school. Or students' listed address may be with one parent but they actually live with another relative.

If truancy petitions come up in Juvenile Court, school officials may be unable to document the exact number of unexcused absences, and the charge may be dismissed.

The same could happen if school social workers aren't in court to press the charge -- and many don't work during the summer.

School officials may see a truancy petition as a last resort. But Patterson said the earlier the court gets involved, the more effectively it can direct programs and help students in need.

Solutions at work

Some efforts to address the problem are under way at some schools.

At Central High School for instance, Assistant Principal Steven Lewis said school officials have begun real-time tracking of truancy from teacher to an attendance clerk.

In the "Time for Time" program, the school sends notices every nine weeks to parents whose children need to make up missed days in after-school sessions.

Lewis said the nine-week window helps keep truancy from stacking up and sometimes can clear up confusion over an absence and whether it was excusable or not.

A school social worker also has begun attending Juvenile Court truancy hearings this summer.

Task force member Lori Harris Hammond, a supervisor with the Department of Children's Services, said making parents suffer the consequences for their children's failure to go to school could be part of the answer.

When that happens, "suddenly (parents) become all-powerful" and the student starts attending, Hammond said.

Not a new problem

Smith reminded the task force that truancy is an old problem.

In 2008, the late General Sessions Court Judge Bob Moon stepped into the spotlight by speaking out about truancy and holding parents of truant children accountable in his court. That year there were 19,602 truant students, or nearly half of the 40,000 students in Hamilton County.

That was also the year that Juvenile Court heard the largest number of truancy cases in its 19-year records history, 616.

Philyaw told task force members that he had initially underestimated the truancy docket, which is run by the magistrates under his supervision.

Philyaw, who was appointed judge in April 2013, said he oversaw one of the dockets himself soon afterward and saw firsthand that "you see it all."

Shortly afterward, he said, he contacted Smith and helped appoint the task force.

Contact staff writer Todd South at or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter@tsouthCTFP.