School district digs into truancy problem |

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School district digs into truancy problem

Shannon LitzDouglas High School students walk to class on Thursday, Feb. 21.

In the halls and classrooms of public schools, “truancy” is a word that carries nefarious connotations — ditching, cutting class, playing hooky.But in the minds of local educators, truancy is often the symptom of something deeper, some personal situation or struggle of the student that’s been overlooked, and now threatens the ultimate goal of the Douglas County School District — to graduate students who are ready for college or a career.“Our focus is on why truant students aren’t going to school,” said Superintendent Lisa Noonan. “There is usually a reason why they’re not in class. Our job is figuring out the deeper issues we need to get a handle on.”Assistant Superintendent Lyn Gorrindo agrees. She refers to the district’s truancy expert, Rod Smalley, not as a truancy officer, but as a “drop-out prevention specialist.”“What Rob does is so much more than truancy,” she said. “It’s really about problem-solving.”Those problems range the emotional spectrum of adolescence. Noonan mentioned bullies, test anxiety, and challenges at home. In one case years ago, while working as a principal, she confronted a sixth-grade student who refused to come to school. The student had a single mother who worked long hours.“He was a little overweight, and it turned out he was embarrassed because his pants didn’t fit him,” she recalled. “He only had one pair of jeans.”Noonan bought the student new pants and helped rebuild his confidence.“Sometimes, they just need somebody they can trust in a quiet moment,” she said, “so they can tell that person what’s going on.”Gorrindo shared a similar story.“We had a student with size 14 feet,” she said. “He didn’t have any shoes that fit him, so (his principal) went out and bought him some tennis shoes.”But not every truancy stems from poverty. In higher grade levels, Gorrindo said, truancy often revolves around destructive behavior, and is reinforced by that behavior. “A lot times at the high school level there is substance abuse,” she said. “The students don’t come back after lunch because they’re getting high.”Truancy is against the lawIn Nevada, school attendance is required for children between the ages of 7 and 18. Exemptions from the requirement are narrowly defined in Nevada Revised Statutes and include serious medical conditions, legitimate geographical challenges, private school or home school, early graduation or GED completion, and employment or apprenticeship.The latter provision only applies to 15-18-year-olds who have completed the eighth grade. Also requiring school board authorization, the employment exemption rarely, if ever, occurs.“I have never seen anyone come forward requesting that,” Noonan said. “These are typically kids who are becoming farther behind on credits. For them, it’s looking more and more difficult to graduate. We’re trying to keep them from giving up.”Under state law, a truancy is considered an unapproved absence, meaning no parent, legal guardian or staff member has excused the student for a valid reason. A truancy can apply to an entire day that’s been missed or just one period.The state classifies three or more instances in one year as “habitual” truancy, which can lead to citations for the student and criminal charges for the parents.In the 2011-12 school year, Douglas High had 85 habitual truancies, Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School had three, Carson Valley Middle School had one, and Whittell High School had four, Gorrindo reported.She said that elementary schools typically don’t produce as many truancies. This year, however, the district is tracking at least a few cases at the elementary school level. “A lot of times with elementary kids, it’s a parental issue,” she said. “Even at the high school level, it may be a parental issue, where the parents aren’t making their kids go to school. So unless the kids decide to take it into their own hands, to say that education is important, we just lose them.”Problem-solvingState law requires every district to establish an advisory board to address habitual truancies.In Douglas County, that board meets once a month at ASPIRE, the district’s alternative education program, in Minden. The board is comprised of representatives from the school district, sheriff’s office, district attorney’s office, juvenile probation and Tahoe Youth & Family Services. “The board really wants to know why a student is habitually truant and what they can do to support the student and their family,” Gorrindo said.The first step is motivating students to come to school. Serious offenders are cited and fined $100. But the fine can be waived if students go 60 days without a truancy.Offenders are also required to participate in eight hours of community service.“These kids are failing because they don’t go to school,” Gorrindo said, “so their community service can be spent tutoring at the high school.”Students struggling with substance abuse or other issues are referred to Tahoe Youth & Family Services for counseling. Many end up joining ASPIRE, which this year has enrolled approximately 85 pupils.“A lot of these kids end up coming to ASPIRE because they haven’t fit in at the traditional high school,” Gorrindo said. “And because the truancy board meets at ASPIRE, the parents are able to see the school and what it can do for them. We pick up at least one kid at almost every one of our truancy hearings.”It helps that Smalley and district-wide counselor Tricia Wentz frequent the ASPIRE campus, and that author and ASPIRE teacher Miki Trujillo has spent a lifetime reaching out to teenagers.“If the students don’t show up, then Rod goes and gets them out of bed,” Gorrindo said. In extreme cases of truancy, when educators have exhausted their options, law enforcement takes over. Gorrindo said that Assistant District Attorney Tom Gregory sits on the truancy board and reminds parents that they’re in violation of state law and can be charged with neglect. “We don’t get involved beyond that point,” Gorrindo said.While parents can be part of the problem, they also can be part of the solution. Noonan said that many parents appreciate any help.“If a child sees that the adults are together on this, then they know that skipping the bus isn’t going to be an option,” she said. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Noonan argues that increased truancy creates a “spiraling effect.”“The students have missed class, and then they’re back in class but behind, and they don’t know what’s going on,” she said. “Now, they want to avoid it more. There is this negative momentum that’s difficult to overcome. The antidote is to be in class. My heart goes out to kids once they’re behind.”For Noonan, and fellow soldiers on the front line, reducing truancy is a battle worth fighting. “If there are only five kids, it’s worth trying to turn around those five lives,” she said. “Every single case is important.”