JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Prenger Family Center in Jefferson City is now in its third year in providing area students with a diversion program to preempt truancy court.
The voluntary diversion program is also led by volunteers former Judge Cotton Walker, a marshall from the county courthouse, and administrator Michael Couty, who says the effort takes up to six months with students who need to focus on maintaining good school attendance.
“We meet with families and students every other Wednesday after the courthouse is shut down,” said Couty. “We meet with schools and look at the attendance and grades. By looking for barriers and identifying them, we can work with families to effectively correct them.”
Couty said for some families, just getting a letter in the mail from the program will turn attendance issues around.
At the longest, the diversion program works with students for six months. Their goal is to resolve the issues within the quarter, if not the semester.
“It takes a lot of time, but it is important to give attention to the issues,” Couty said. “Sometimes it will be a bus issue, while some families have issues when it comes to alarm clocks. Most of the time, it is just working with the family on addressing those issues.”
Over 250 students between 6th-11th grade have been referred to the program since its recent start. There has also been work with a handful of families at local elementary schools.
The program started when juvenile administrators wants to reboot and redirect the process. Students can be referred to the program up to 3 times before they’re referred elsewhere. Often, the program diverts students away from going before a judge in truancy court.
“We give them an opportunity to have success,” said Couty. “We have seen pretty good outcomes with this approach, especially when families understand that this is a voluntary program. There is a voluntary consent agreement between the family, child, judge, and myself. We give them small goals over the 2-week period and then expand to see program in 4 weeks. Once they get into a habit of attending, we rarely continue to see attendance issues anymore. After 30 days of no issues, we close the case.”
Couty said other juvenile courts around the state have started doing similar diversion programs for students with attendance issues.
The program is successful in large part because of the time volunteered by Tanya Alm an attorney who contributes her time and Jeff Hilke who is the bailiff.
A spotlight was shone on truancy by Supreme Court Justice Mary Russell while she was chief justice when she addressed truancy as an offense in columns and her own civil service. Russell regularly visited Lewis & Clark Middle School in Jefferson City.
“Truancy court, a positive reinforcement program, asks school administrators to select students who, pursuant to school policy, have missed too many days of school,” wrote Russell last fall. “The students must have parental permission to participate in the 14 week long program. Since truancy can be a sign of future delinquent and criminal behavior, for over 12 years I have volunteered in middle schools wherever I have lived. As Victor Hugo said, ‘He who opens a school house door, closes a prison.’ I sternly tell the students at the beginning of each semester that it is a state law that children must attend school regularly or their parents could be charged with a misdemeanor.”
She continued, “Many times I learn the reason that students are not attending school regularly is because their families do not value education. But I want students to learn the value of education and realize that despite their economic background, education is the great equalizer in life and they can be whatever they want to be.”
The Prenger Family Center is the Juvenile Office for the 19th Circuit Court, but also hosts a variety of other services to the area, include youth and family counseling, temporary shelter for adolescents, emergency residential care, and detention for youth offenders.
Featured image courtesy of The Architecture Alliance.