County Agrees To Tackle Truancy

There is a problem in Jefferson County that affects future generations, and the Jefferson County Commissioners agreed to take action on that issue.

At the commissioners meeting on Tuesday, members of the Fairbury Community Foundation and others met with the Jefferson County Commissioners to discuss the options for reducing the large amount of truancy in the county.

Don Cook, who has been working to organize a program to identify barriers that are dissuading children from attending school, explained that this truancy issue has affected Fairbury Public Schools. He advocated for a program offered through Seward County Pretrial Diversion to help reduce the amount of truancy in the county schools.

“We have heard a lot of concern, and a lot of interest is shown in why so many kids are walking the streets during school hours when they should be in school,” said Cook. “So we started researching programs, and there was no program here for truancy, except for legislative law. Through all the research, we found that Seward County Pretrial Diversion has an excellent truancy program. We found that this would probably best fit Jefferson County.”

Denise Janssen, Program Director for Seward County Pretrial Diversion, explained that this program was developed in Seward County, but has since expanded with interlocal agreements from other counties. They work with the school, the parents and the students to resolve the issue before it reaches the county attorney.

“We get the referrals directly from the school,” Janssen said. “Prior to us stepping in, all of those referrals went to the county attorney’s office, and sometimes there was a lapse in the amount of time between when the county attorney got the referral and the filing was done. This way we can speed the process along.”

Through this program, Seward County Pretrial Diversion would monitor the attendance of students who were referred to the program by the schools. They would then start to work with the students and the schools to determine what issues exist. If the student shows improvement in attendance, then the group would continue to work with that student until the end of the school year. If there are no signs of improvement, the case would then be given to County Attorney Jeffrey Goltz.

Fairbury Jr./Sr. High School Principal Nicholas Kroon noted that last year there was an excessive number of absences from FHS.

“We were sending letters home frequently,” said Kroon. “All the time, actually. For me, the significance was that 51 kids missed 20 days of school last year. That’s 51 kids out of 390 kids. We had 146 that missed 10 or more days.”

Commissioner Michael Dux stated that a lot of the issue comes from parenting, and Cook agreed, but emphasized the need to be proactive. April Whitney, Case Manager for Seward County Pretrial Diversion, stated that it is important to identify these patterns of absence in elementary school so that the behavior does not become reinforced.

“It’s poor parenting to begin with, but then it becomes a learned behavior,” said Whitney. “One of the biggest statistics I like to share with elementary schools is that if a student is chronically absent in pre-k, kindergarten and first grade, and they don’t read at their grade level by third grade, they’re seven times more likely to drop out of high school.”

Whitney explained that when she identifies students who have missed an excessive number of days, she works with them one on one to find ways to mitigate the problem. She noted that a number of things contribute to truancy ranging from issues at home and bullying at schools to potential mental health issues and, potentially, substance abuse issues.

Commissioner Mark Schoenrock noted that the total cost to implement this program in Jefferson County is $16,000, which would cover the cost to have Whitney work in the school districts and to utilize the resources that the program offers. Janssen noted that some of that cost could also be off set by grants.

“It would cost us so much more to start a program like this in Jefferson County ourselves,” Cook said. “We did this because it’s for the kids. We’ve got to get the kids in school again; they can’t be on the street corners. It all started with the community. We need to do something.”

Whitney noted that the resources would be available to all of the schools in Jefferson County, although, she stated, the other schools are on par with attendance when compared to the state average. Therefore, the focus at this time would be resolving the truancy issue at Fairbury Public Schools.

Goltz stated that he sees the benefit in having such a program available to help resolve this issue. He explained that he was willing to direct part of his budget to cover the costs of this program. Schoenrock emphasized that he is supportive of this program, and the other commissioners also showed their support. Kroon also emphasized his support.

“We’re all in this together,” said Schoenrock. “It takes all these data points in the same shot group to equate to success for these young men and these young women.”

The commissioners approved implementing this diversion program in Jefferson County. Whitney emphasized that this program will see positive results in Jefferson County.

“I definitely think that we can see some improvement within the year,” Whitney said.