The past school year was in the rearview mirror — and the next one still half a summer away — when Cpl. Kevan Maas climbed into a Walla Walla County Sheriff’s Office patrol car in mid-July.
In his hand, Maas carried a thick stack of school truancy papers yet to be handed directly to families, despite multiple previous attempts to do so by the county’s process server.
These packets are a summons from a school district that directs parents and children to Walla Walla County’s truancy court, issued for a child under the age of 18 who has too many unexcused absences. In Washington state, all children ages 8 to 18 must attend school, be it public, private or at home, unless they are excused for health or a few other reasons.
As has always been the case, kids can miss school for valid grounds such as illness, according to state law. Barring those, district officials can file a petition of truancy on a youth skipping school after other measures have been tried.
The sort of paperwork Maas was delivering isn’t sent out until a school district has exhausted all other means to “get the kid into the seat,” he said.
“Now they’re looking to get a kid in front of truancy court.”
In Walla Walla County, that’s Vance Norswothy, truancy coordinator.
Norsworthy, who also has probation officer duties, works at the county’s Juvenile Justice Center. He’s been working with at-risk kids who arrive at the detention facility for 21 years.
Those he meets with for missing school always bear the burden of multiple problems, he said.
“It’s never just about truancy. The reality is the kids who need to go to court are at-risk teenagers who haven’t been arrested for a crime and are not on supervision for criminal offenses.”
To reach his desk, a student must have missed school seven times in one month or 10 times in a year for reasons no parent or guardian excused, Norsworthy said.
And still, under that criteria alone, there could be several hundred truant teens, he said. But in the 2018-2019 school year only about 100 such petitions were filed by school districts, according to county records.
Generally, education officials won’t file on a teen who will soon turn 18, or who has started to turn negative attendance behavior around, Norsworthy explained.
“Truancy court is supposed to identify the kids who are willfully disregarding the law and their parents’ wishes. A classic example is a kid who is lying to the school, lying to their families … and they are perfectly capable of going to school,” he said.
A pattern of skipping school can stem from trouble paying attention in class to mental health triggers, such as feeling bullied or depressed. It often starts with something as small as a single missed class period. For a child dealing with anxiety or emotional stress, that leads to embarrassment over not knowing what’s going on with the lesson, which leads to skipping another class. Eventually it just seems easier to stop attending school.
“Truants today are not the classic ‘Tom Sawyer,’ just playing hooky,” Norsworthy said.
When those behaviors become habits — that’s much more likely to happen after elementary grades — teens end up calling their shots, he said.
Schools are required to do certain interventions before the situation reaches the petition point. Conferences with parents are set up, but some don’t show up for those, he said.
Or return the multiple robo- and personal calls and emails.
School personnel also refer students to counseling, tutoring and health providers in efforts to get them back on track.
“The schools do a lot; they are trying to communicate constantly,” Norsworthy said, noting busy school office staff sometimes can’t find time to document every effort they make, and that can backfire.
“Sometimes it looks like not enough was done, but that’s not true.”
When parents and students finally do land in front of Norsworthy, he validates their shock of the situation, he said.
“I try to give a parent some relief. I tell them they have a right to disagree with the school’s record of their child’s attendance. But I can say out of all the petitions I’ve gotten, no parent has said they want a court hearing to dispute the school’s record … 100 percent of the petitions I’ve dealt with, parents have said, ‘We need help and we need changes.’”
When a Sheriff’s Office employee rings the doorbell, “for many families, that’s the start of an intervention,” Norsworthy said.
Sometimes it’s the county’s process server, Lance Britain, and sometimes it’s from a man or woman wearing a badge, like Maas on his 12-hour night shift.
The deputy said he sees the fear, anger or embarrassment in the eyes of parents, even when a smile is directly below, he said.
“You get a mixed bag of reactions.”
At his first truancy service for this evening, Maas drove to a newer neighborhood within throwing distance of Walla Walla High School. Yards were landscaped, the street wide and dotted with people playing basketball and riding bikes.
A woman answered the door, her voice pleasant. She has known to expect a visit, due to notices already left by Britain at this address.
“Third time’s the charm,” she told Maas.
Her son is a challenge, especially without an active father in the picture. He is doing drugs, the woman said, but recently “he ‘didn’t want to become a professional tweaker.’ I told him ‘good.’”
Maas makes it his mission to assure every parent that he realizes they want the best for their child, he said.
“I know you’re a good mom,” Maas told the woman, his head bent to listen to her hopes of convincing her son to enter rehab.
Back in the car, Maas noted he still needed to get a separate copy of the order to the young man, a student at Lincoln High School. This adds another step to this task that’s already taken four visits to the house, he said.
“And we are so grossly understaffed. It makes it difficult to get to some of these papers and spend time with these parents. It’s pretty much ‘drive fast, paperwork, drive fast, paperwork.’ All night long.”
Like Norsworthy, Maas sees truancy as a layered issue, with mental health at the top. Sometimes, he said, it’s not the child at all, but the parent.
“Like, the kid says they want to go to school, but mom’s off her meds again. Or they say, ‘I don’t even know where my school is because we’ve moved three times.’”
Try, try again
At that moment, the patrol car’s radio crackles with a dispatcher’s message: A caller has asked for a deputy to respond to the intersection of Foster and Pikes Peak roads. Someone is setting off fireworks near wheat fields.
Maas tells the dispatcher he’s on the other side of the county, trying to get truancy papers served to make sure families know to show up for court the next day.
Policy says truancy papers have to be delivered before 10 p.m.
With only one other deputy stationed in the Burbank area, Maas checks to see if Sgt. Steve Duehn is finished with booking an earlier arrest into Walla Walla County Jail and can handle the illegal fireworks call.
This time it works out, but not every call can be answered. And they all wish that wasn’t the case, Maas said.
As if to underscore his point, the deputy pulls onto Myra Road in time to spot a rig pulling a cargo trailer lacking a taillight.
“That’s a traffic safety concern,” Maas said. “But I have this paperwork to deliver. This is also important. We have to get kids in school. Education is the No. 1 thing that fights crime.”
School attendance, he pointed out, “is the serious, big-picture issue.”
Getting families to truancy court this summer for last year’s unexcused absences get things in place for the coming school year, even when it takes try after try.
Doing so can mean establishing standards for families that can’t seem to see the need for boundaries, Maas said.
“We end up doing a lot of parenting. We can’t tell you how to parent, but we can tell you that you need to parent.”
A moment later, the deputy pulled into Valle Lindo, a housing development managed by Walla Walla Housing Authority. Historically the homes here have housed agricultural workers.
A gaggle of youngsters with wide smiles wave Maas down.
They know he has stickers, he said with his own grin before hopping out to dispense several from his uniform pocket and trade a little chitchat.
“I wish I could go back in time and learn Spanish. When it would have been easier,” Maas said as he searched for a house number out the patrol car window.
Here the deputy is delivering at an address where Sheriff’s Office staff has tried to make contact on this matter since June 13. This time, a woman responds, and Maas asks a nearby child to translate.
Yes, the mother agreed in Spanish, she knows about court. They will be there, she assures the deputy.
Driving away, Maas said the boy’s name shows up on truancy papers with regularity.
Sometimes a child is dictating the rules of the house, he said.
“It used to be a parent always knew where their kid was at. Now parents rely on the cellphone,” he said, holding his own aloft. “I think this has turned into their baby sitter.”
Moms and dads have told Maas they keep tabs on kids through Facebook, he said with a shake of his head.
“Nothing replaces a sit-down at the family dinner. And that will be the way to fix this.”
Maas knows it can sound simplistic, and there are certainly complicated barriers to getting kids back to regular school attendance.
Money, for instance, will have to be spent, he said.
“In services, on law enforcement … We have to get in front of this before we become the place people are fleeing from.
“Walla Walla is too small to have this much trouble.”