Incentives, prosecution drive students back into school

By Kevin Beese Staff reporter

The Lake County Regional Office of Education has information on its website on truancy. (Lake County Regional Office of Education website)

Going to school for two weeks nets some Lake County students a free lunch or a gift card. 

It may seem like a low threshold for reward, but for chronically truant students two weeks of perfect attendance can be a milestone and a springboard to regular school attendance. 

Monica Schwander, director of attendance and truancy for the Lake County Regional Office of Education, and her team of three outreach specialists use the items as carrots in dealing with 800 to 1,000 chronically truant students every school year. 

“We want to know why students are missing so we will follow up with a parent phone call,” Schwander said. “Sometimes the stories are very different about why the student is missing school.  Some of these parents did not have the greatest experience with school and did not graduate themselves so they don’t communicate well to their children the importance of school.” 

Lake County’s director of school attendance said there is often much going on inside the home of a chronically truant student. 

“We know truancy is normally one small part of what is going on with the family,” Schwander said. “There can be homelessness, low income and substance abuse.” 

Like Schwander’s team, most regional offices of education work to get chronically truant students back into school. When those efforts prove unproductive, that local state’s attorney’s office and court system often get involved. 

“It is a status offense,” Schwander said. “A judge can order the student to go to school and serve community service hours. Fines can be up to $100 a day, but I’ve never seen that instilled because it would cause a hardship for most families.” 

Another sentence judges have at their discretion is ordering a student not to be able to obtain his or her driver’s license until age 18 or, if the student already has a license, withholding it until the individual turns 18. 

Katie Zimmerman, alternative justice & outreach coordinator for the Winnebago County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the county’s Regional Office of Education handles truancy issues in various way, always trying to get the student back in school. In severe cases, she noted, parents can be charged with neglect. 

“Schools try to handle it before a student gets charged with truancy,” Zimmerman said. “With a neglect charge, the parent can lose guardianship if it is proven that the parent is depriving education to their child. A judge can also order a minor to attend school.” 

Zimmerman said there is no formula for handling truancy cases, that each case has to be judged on its own merits. 

She noted that there is not much counseling done by the State’s Attorney’s Office when a case reaches the department. 

“By the time it gets to us, we are not necessarily working with the family,” Zimmerman said. “It is already in court so it is a serious enough matter.”
The DuPage County State’s Attorney’s Office has been involved in 10 truancy cases this year, including one transient family with four siblings all listed as chronically truant. The other cases include one family with two children chronically truant, office records show. 

The office was involved in 24 cases in 2016. 

The office has not prosecuted any cases in the last few years and its involvement is to serve as incentive for parents to get their child back in school. 

DeKalb County on the other hand does prosecute truancy cases. After a student has accumulated eight unexcused absences, a truancy case is filed with the State’s Attorney’s Office.  

There have been 10 cases filed so far this year, seven cases last year and 11 cases in 2015, according to DeKalb County State’s Attorney Rick Amato. 

“Additionally, if the student is less than 10 years old, our office will file an abuse and neglect charge against the parents of the child for educational neglect,” Amato said. 

He said addressing truancy takes work on multiple fronts. 

“With these types of cases, many agencies often are involved between law enforcement, schools, (Department of Children and Family Services), etc.,” Amato said. 

The Kane County Regional Office of Education has had 3,000 student contacts both of the last two fiscal years, but the outcomes have changed dramatically in those two years. In 2015-16, those contacts resulted in 17 juvenile court cases and 1 adult court case. This past fiscal year, those numbers have dropped to five juvenile court cases and one adult court case. 

Kane parents and guardians can be charged with knowingly allowing truancy, a Class A misdemeanor. Chris Nelson, public information officer for the Kane County State’s Attorney’s Office, said the office does have one active case. 

McLean County State’s Attorney Jason Chambers noted that up until about two years ago his office did not go forward with any truancy cases. 

“That policy has changed,” Chambers said. “We review cases forwarded to us by the Truancy Review Board for Juvenile Court. There is a significant drawback to that though because delinquency court now has very little enforcement power over a juvenile truant and are mostly limited to requiring them to appear for another court date and report on their attendance.” 

The McLean County state’s attorney said his office has also moved forward with cases against parents where there has been chronic truancy that prosecutors view as neglect. 

“These are not cases where someone misses seven to 10 school days,” Chambers said. “Instead, they are circumstances where a child is missing 30-40 percent of school. Typically, in those circumstances there are other factors involving the parents, such as mental health concerns or drug abuse.”  




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