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New council helps parents avoid legal trouble in truancy cases

A new Beaufort County Schools initiative is designed to help parents avoid legal troubles stemming from state attendance law infractions, while also giving students access to essential resources they may be lacking.

The Judicial Attendance Council, which recently heard its first two cases, essentially serves as an intensive intervention for families of students who continue to miss class, either remotely or in-person, despite repeated notifications and outreach attempts from the school system.

North Carolina’s compulsory attendance dictates how schools can handle cases where a student is accumulating excessive unexcused absences. If a student is found to be chronically in violation of that law, and their family doesn’t respond to or cooperate with the school system’s efforts to intervene, the parents can be taken to court.

By adding JAC meetings to the intervention process, the school system wants to help families avoid that outcome. Only extreme cases of chronic truancy are referred to JAC. Students who’ve met with the council had already missed between 40% and 80% of school days.

“There’s no way someone with chronic attendance issues will be on their grade level or making progress academically,” BCS Director of Student Services Ashley Padgett said.

District Court Judges Regina Parker and Keith Mason facilitate JAC meetings. Parents must attend the meetings, as well as principals, counselors and school social workers involved with the students’ education. Depending on the needs of each family, other attendees can include BCS technology and transportation administrators, school health workers, Department of Social Services workers, outside health care providers and older students.

“We discuss attendance, and what we can do as a group to improve attendance,” Padgett said. “So if they’re learning remotely and they’re having a problem with hotspots, what can we do to improve that? Or if a student just won’t log in, and their parents are at work and an older sibling is helping out, can we get them to go face-to-face?”

The purpose of the JAC is to identify major issues causing attendance lapses — whether they involve students needing transportation accommodation, not having the resources to complete assignments, unaddressed medical concerns, or any other problems that arise. Based on those needs, a plan is crafted for each student detailing how they’ll be expected to improve their attendance habits. If the parents don’t make those corrective actions within 30 days, the school system files a warrant against them. A warrant is also served if a family doesn’t appear for its JAC date.

In every case, it is one of the school system’s last intervention attempts in a series that may include letters, phone calls, meetings with school administrators and home visits.

“We could’ve gone ahead and filed the warrant, but we really want to make sure that the family is supported and that we’ve done everything possible to get rid of barriers, to make sure kids are in school,” Padgett said.

“Now when it gets to a point when the warrant will have to be served, and they go to court, the school system has done all this problem-solving already, and you’ve met with a judge, yet you’re still not getting your kid to log on, you’re still not getting your kid to come to school,” said Renee Boyd, BCS Project AWARE director.

Last Monday, Feb. 8, the JAC heard two cases involving a combined six students. Boyd says the group will assist five more students when it meets in March.

JAC meetings are currently being held once per month. The frequency of meetings could eventually increase depending on the amount of families needing assistance.

“We’re looking at it as a support piece before we get to the punitive court piece,” Padgett said.  “Because it will be punitive once it gets to court. We don’t want it on mom and dad’s record — because it does go on your record, and it could result in jail time or something else.

“We just want the kids in school.”

The JAC is a concept BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman borrowed from Perquimans County, where he previously served in the same capacity.

Beaufort County Schools is excited to have the collaborative support of Judge Parker and Judge Mason in helping us work with families to knock down the barriers that may exist in ensuring students attends school as required by law,” Cheeseman said.

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