County tries to shift approach to truancy

Fairfax Times

Fairfax County is preparing to dramatically change its approach to dealing with chronically truant students, shifting from a punishment-focused response to one that tries to address truancy as a symptom of a larger problem.

More than 2,000 Fairfax County Public Schools students had 21 or more unexcused absences last school year, and more than 16,000 had more than five unexcused absences, the point at which the school principal is legally required to intervene.

Students who are chronically truant are at higher risk for substance abuse and mental health problems and are more likely to drop out of school.

Due to the state’s compulsory school attendance laws, chronically truant students can wind up in court. While it is a civil offense, that contact with the court system can do more harm than good, according to Bob Bermingham, director of court services for the Fairfax County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.

“If the wrong child enters our system, we just do not do a good job and probably make the situation worse,” he said.

While the schools and the courts are now using diversion programs and taking other steps to connect students with services they need, rather than focusing on punishment, the approach is inconsistent and can vary from school to school, Bermingham said.

Fairfax County Public Schools only filed 95 truancy complaints in fiscal 2014, which roughly covers the last school year, down from 193 in fiscal 2012...

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