“He moped to school gloomy and sad, and took his flogging, along with Joe Harper, for playing hooky the day before.”
— “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” by Mark Twain
Squirrely Tom knew he would be flogged and still skipped school! The age-old social problem of what to do with a truant remains as complicated in the Walla Walla Valley in 2018 as it did in Missouri in 1840.
Yes, the town of St. Petersburg was fictional, but the setting was based on Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, where I’d imagine there were a lot of Tom Sawyer-types who would have preferred fishing and swimming over going to school once in a while.
And as the truancy officer for Walla Walla County, I can verify flogging is not a sanction imposed by our local Superior Court judge, the Honorable John W. Lohrmann, during truancy court hearings.
For middle- and high-schoolers in Washington state who skip school, going to court is a distinct possibility. Elementary-age students who miss too many days don’t have to appear, but their parents do. (State law requires school districts to submit truancy petitions to the court once a student is absent, unexcused, seven days in a month or 10 days in a school year.)
Efforts are made at every school to help families avoid the serious consequence of being summoned to the courthouse. Administrators, counselors, teachers and intervention specialists regularly meet with students and parents to problem-solve and make suggestions on improving attendance. If necessary, they do home visits hoping to make a personal connection. But if the unexcused absences start to add up and the efforts to fix the problem don’t work, school officials end up reaching out to the court for help.
Officially, my job is to hold students and parents accountable to the law, process petitions, and compel attendance through civil court procedure. Unofficially, my job is to interrupt the behavior — poor attendance — and convince students and parents it’s worth it to make a change and develop new habits and new behavior — regular attendance and a connection to school.
What are the reasons children miss so much school it becomes harmful?
Many families deal with stress and financial hardship related to food insecurity, unstable housing, transportation, and day care. Some experience the trauma of domestic violence or substance use and addiction. Some students simply fall behind in a class, have difficulty catching up, are unsure how to get help and start skipping to avoid immediate consequences.
One missed period leads to two, two leads to three or four, until the student eventually misses full days on a regular basis. Other underlying causes include untreated depression and anxiety, an undiagnosed learning disability and bullying or harassment.
Talking about these problems can be difficult. The keys are timing and the challenge of connecting children and families to meaningful interventions as soon as the primary barrier is recognized.
To help families remove these barriers, our schools, court system, area service providers, local businesses and institutions of higher learning can come together and offer support. Research shows children engage when they feel they belong in their school environment, when they see their effort rewarded with newfound skill and competence, when they believe they can be successful and when they know it is worth it to try (Camille A. Farrington, University of Chicago Consortium on School Research. 2012, “Teaching Adolescents to Become Learners”).
The sooner we approach each student and family where they are — their knowledge and awareness of the problem, their willingness to consider options and accept help, and their readiness to take steps toward a solution — the sooner we can work on a plan that benefits everyone.
We all have the same goal of living in a safe community where families thrive. Let’s consider how important it is for all children to feel connected to their school at all times, and let’s work together to make it happen.
Vance Norsworthy is a probation and truancy officer for Walla Walla County Juvenile Justice Center.