The following reflections of Missouri Chief Justice Mary R. Russell make up her most recent Justice Matters column.
As school bells ring and children all across our state enter classrooms, I am reminded that I, too, will be going back to school again.
Thursday mornings at 7:45, wearing my black robe, I meet with students at the Lewis and Clark Middle School in Jefferson City to teach them the importance of regular school attendance. Truancy court, a positive reinforcement program, asks school administrators to select students who, pursuant to school policy, have missed too many days of school. 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.
Each week I also meet with the students individually to review progress reports from their teachers regarding attendance, academic performance and behavior. We set weekly goals, practice firm handshakes and learn how to make eye contact when speaking to adults. Students are encouraged through praise and incentives to improve and maintain regular attendance. Gifts such as notebooks, markers or a coupon for a cookie in the cafeteria are given to the students. Similar incentive gifts are given to each student attending truancy court that week. During every session, I announce to the other students waiting for their meeting, one thing positive that the student I met with did that week. Students themselves sometimes see the immediate benefits of regular school attendance, by knowing what their homework assignments are, being more prepared for tests, and making better grades.
School guidance counselors and juvenile officers are also active participants providing encouragement and information to the students regarding the importance of regular school attendance. A local grocery store donates doughnuts and juice for the students’ breakfast as they arrive to school early to participate. Parents also are encouraged to get involved in each session.
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.
A graduation ceremony is held at the end of the semester and students are encouraged to talk about what they learned from the program. I shed a tear listening to how some students have turned their lives around. I give them hugs, and invite students with the best attendance records to come to the Supreme Court and be introduced during our docket.
Truancy courts are held in schools throughout the state with local judges volunteering on a regular basis. If the middle school in your area does not have a truancy court program, please contact your local judge to see if one can be started. As Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success is showing up.”