Last updated: September 01. 2013 10:44AM - 2162 Views
By BILL ROSENBERGER The Herald-Dispatch

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Nikita Jackson knew there was a truancy problem locally based on her work with juvenile offenders at Cabell County’s Robert Shell Juvenile Center.

But she is now seeing the other side of the issue as Cabell County’s new school-based probation officer appointed to keep kids in school. Jackson, 27, is already being inundated with lists from the county’s four middle schools of students who have missed five or more of the school year’s first 12 days.

Some of the more than 150 kids may not be living in Cabell County anymore — another problem she is trying to help clarify for the school system. But many, for one reason or another, just haven’t been coming to school.

One week earlier this month, “I went to three homes for six kids,” Jackson told school board members. “Five of the six have been in school every day since then.”

Though Jackson works for Cabell Circuit Court as a probation officer, she said she prefers getting kids out of bed and to class rather than seeing them stand in front of a judge being chided for truancy.

Jackson, who earned a counseling degree from Marshall and worked as a counselor at the Shell Center for five years, is focusing on a diversion program to identify and intervene with students before they are designated truant.

Jackson said being at the Shell Center allowed her to see the other side “after they got in trouble and how it affects them and their family. Now I can try and prevent that.” She said most kids there had truancy issues that preceded other juvenile offenses.

In West Virginia, truancy is defined as a student who has accumulated five or more unexcused absences in a school year. Last school year, 3,088 Cabell County students hit that mark. That was up 122 from the 2011-2012 school year, although overall enrollment also grew by 244.

The problem has escalated to a point that Cabell circuit judges Paul Farrell and Alfred Ferguson have publicly lent the weight of their authority. In 2012, truant students from both high schools were called to court and warned they were being watched. Some heeded the warning, others did not, leading to charges being filed.

That authority won’t be replaced by Jackson, but she is working to catch students early by reaching out when they reach three unexcused absences.

At that point, it’s just a conversation at the school between Jackson and the student. If the student reaches the five days, the school mails out the notice of a violation of the attendance policy. Jackson also sends a letter to the student on West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals letterhead requesting a meeting with the parents and the student.

At that point, the court system also will send out a notice to appear in diversion court. A magistrate decides if the case should go to circuit court, if the student should be monitored or if the student needs to be placed in the diversion program.

The diversion program involves a contract that both parents and the student must follow. It can include random drug screens, home visits and a curfew of 9 p.m. that can only be broken with the probation officer’s permission for such things as a job or extracurricular activity. Community service also can be imposed by the probation officer.

If neither the parents nor student agree to abide by the contact, the case will move to circuit court.

Parents who are found guilty of truancy can face fines and jail time, but that is often reserved for elementary school cases.

In high school, the students are often held responsible. They can and have been taken out of homes and put into foster care or shelters to make sure they attend school.

But in middle school, the lines blur. Sometimes, as Jackson has found, parents can be as culpable as students.

Buddy Chapman, the assistant principal at Huntington Middle School, said there are some parents without high school diplomas of their own or who simply don’t care if their child attends.

Others are single parents whose shifts start at 7 a.m. and count on their children to get themselves on the bus. Chapman said there also are middle-class homes with two parents who are at their wits’ end trying to get their son or daughter to attend school.

“There’s nothing worse than a kid not in school,” Chapman said. “They fall further and further behind.” He said having Jackson - who wears a badge, probation office shirt and will start carrying mace after completing the certification - brings a level of authority.

“Kids have the ‘us vs. them’ mentality,” Chapman said. “We are here to make them successful. If they are (in school), we’ll help them be successful.” Cabell Circuit Judge Paul Farrell said he saw the same desire to help kids succeed in Jackson during the second round of the interview process, which included all four Cabell judges. He said her experience at the Shell Center and her eagerness to tackle the truancy problem impressed him.

“If there is a problem, you have someone who is able to address it immediately,” he said of Jackson. “it gives us another set of young eyes to address the problem.

“We don’t want to see the kids,” Farrell said. “We hope she can divert them back to school and get parents involved. That’s the sole objective.” Jackson’s salary is provided by the Cabell County Board of Education through a state Innovation Zone grant. The estimated cost, including benefits, is between $51,000 and $60,000.

This year, the grant covers 50 percent, with Step 7 funds covering the rest.

The grant amount reduces to 25 percent during the second and third years, then the school board will have to decide if the county will continue to fully fund the program.

Though she is working mostly with middle school students, she’ll also be made aware of issues with ninth-graders. But Jackson or Sherri Woods, the director of student support services, also will coordinate information with the high school graduation coaches and attendance workers to design and implement preventative activities in school.

Woods also touted during the recent board meeting some of those programs that have been successful in the past few years. Those have included an in-school GED program, students’ ability to recover credits during the day, school-based health clinics, mental health counselors, pregnancy program, career academies, dropout prevention grants, child care and parent education.

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