In a state that leads the nation in how often judges jail youths for noncriminal offenses, Washington lawmakers are searching for new ways to keep students out of court when they commit one of those offenses — skipping school.
The state Senate on Tuesday passed a measure that would require all school districts in the state to offer community truancy boards — pre-court interventions that aim to resolve students’ attendance issues outside of the juvenile court system.
While several counties, including Pierce, Spokane and Clark, have had success in using the boards to help truant students, some of the state’s largest school districts — including Tacoma and Seattle — don’t employ the practice.
“This is a model that has been working effectively in 51 school districts in our state already, and we think it is good to extend it to the rest of them,” said state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, who sponsored Senate Bill 6497.
The measure cleared the Senate on a vote of 46-3. It now heads to the state House for consideration.
State law requires districts to file a truancy petition in juvenile court if a student has five unexcused absences in a month or 10 in a year.
Many juvenile court officials and youth advocacy groups say going to court can traumatize kids and often fails to connect them with services that could help improve their attendance.
Automatically sending youths to court for truancy also is part of why Washington leads the nation in how often judges jail juveniles for noncriminal offenses, such as skipping school or running away from home.
On Tuesday, state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said requiring all districts to operate truancy boards could help reduce the number of students who end up in juvenile detention for skipping school.
“We’re hoping to achieve some better outcomes for children and their families,” she said.
Right now, state law encourages districts to use community truancy boards to help divert students from the juvenile court system, but it’s not required.
Still, all but two school districts in Pierce County — Tacoma and Peninsula —already run community truancy boards, and a handful of districts in Thurston County also are establishing them.
Hargrove’s bill would require all of the state’s 295 school districts to start using truancy boards by August 1, 2017.
Typically, community truancy boards consist of school administrators, counselors and court officials who meet with a student and his or her family to develop a personalized plan to improve the student’s attendance.
That could include arranging for tutoring, counseling, a new alarm clock or someone to check in with the student every day at school.
Often, the boards help students improve their attendance and get their truancy petitions dismissed without needing to appear before a judge or court commissioner.
“I think community truancy boards are a proven tool for re-engaging kids,” said Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who voted in favor of the bill.
Some senators expressed concern that Hargrove’s bill would require school districts to start truancy boards without providing new money to pay for them.
Instead, Hargrove’s proposal would let school districts pay for community truancy boards using up to 2 percent of the money they receive through the state’s Learning Assistance Program, which funds remedial tutoring services.
“I’m not sure that is the only source of revenue we can find in this budget for funding this very important program,” said state Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Shoreline, who voted against the bill.
School officials in Tacoma and Seattle mentioned funding concerns when asked recently why they don’t operate community truancy boards.
In addition to requiring districts to operate truancy boards, SB 6497 would require school districts to automatically delay, or stay, any truancy petition they file against a student in juvenile court.
Staying a truancy petition gives a student additional time to resolve his or her attendance problems and potentially get the petition dismissed without going to court.