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HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
TRUANCY TASK FORCE
FINAL REPORT
JANUARY 2002

I.        COMMITTEE STRUCTURE AND MISSION

The House of Representatives Truancy Task Force was officially convened on July 18, 2001 and was preceded by two pre-meetings (6/6/01 and 6/20/01) in anticipation of HCR16 which allowed the Truancy Task Force to officially convene. The most current truancy legislation had been in place since July 12, 2000 and the committee wanted to consider further amendments based on the experience with the existing legislation.

At the request of Speaker of the House Terry R. Spence, the Committee was comprised of nine members. The members included Representative Pamela Maier, Senator David Sokola, Honorable Rosalind Toulson (Justice of the Peace Court), Janet Urdahl (Justice of the Peace Court Truancy Coordinator), Honorable Richard Comly (Justice of the Peace Court), Geraldine Jones, Ph.D. (Delaware Association of Visiting Teachers), Leslie Spoltore, Esq. (Family Court), Joanne Miro (Department of Education) and Kathleen Hildebrand (Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families). Ms. Urdahl staffed the committee.

Others involved in the Committeeís task included: Nancy Bogan (New Castle County Interagency Community Council) Detective Kevin Lange (New Castle County Police Department), Norma Antongiorgi (Red Clay School District), Kay Haubois (Christina School District/Visiting Teacher Associate), Fred Kern (Indian River School District), Mary Dugan (Sen. Sokola’s Office), Joshua Faletta (Wilmington Truancy Center) Honorable Thomas Brown (New Castle County Justice of the Peace Court), Fred Dewey (Kent County Justice of the Peace Court), William Minnow (Student Intern), and Stephanie Mantegna, Legislative Assistant to Representative Maier.

At the first meeting, the Committee agreed that the primary goal of the group would be to review existing legislation and its effectiveness and propose potential changes that could further enhance our truancy laws and process. In addition the committee would consider repeated issues that have impacted truancy cases and may result in increased truancy compliance in the future.

II.        BACKGROUND

The Truancy Court has been a specialized Justice of the Peace Court entity since 1996 starting in New Castle County and by 1998 it had expanded to a statewide initiative. The first legislative changes were to Chapter 27. School Attendance, “Subchapter II Truancy”, Section 2729. Failure to send; Affirmative Defense; Penalties and Section 2730. Failure to Attend Penalties took place in July of 2000 as a result of the first Truancy Task Force convened in 1999. These changes included the Affirmative Defense potential and ultimately the charge against a youth for Failure to Attend. Since the education and court system have been working within these new codes, it has become apparent additional legislation would be helpful in further expediting these cases.

As a result of the previous legislative changes since July 1, 2000 the court has had 78 Affirmative Defense Cases and 78 cases of the students being charged with Failure to Attend. Approximately 86% of the Failure to Attend cases were able to come into compliance with the court. One of the evolving concerns has been the time it takes to be able to charge a youth while establishing the Affirmative Defense with the parent. In some cases this can take up to 90 days. In the majority of the cases it is usually clear to the school district that the youth plays the major role in the truancy problem. By having to go through the Affirmative Defense process a great deal of time is exhausted when the court should be able to have jurisdiction immediately on the youth and the parent.

The Task Force is also proposing legislative change defined as Probation Before Judgement. This would allow the Truancy Judge to work with a family and seek case compliance without an ultimate criminal conviction. As the law currently stands once a guilty plea is taken a criminal conviction is generally inevitable. Once a conviction has been reached the case then becomes subject to educational neglect investigation by the Division of Family Services. It also becomes a permanent part of an individual’s history and can inhibit job opportunities, fiscal relationships (i.e.ability to lease a property) and in some cases it becomes ammunition for child custody if either party is seeking legal leverage.

The committee has also considered other issues and their impact not only on the truancy court process but also on better serving youth that are most at risk for school drop out. Although home schooling can provide an effective educational opportunities for children, truancy issues have demonstrated that home schooling has become a well known loophole for parents to use to establish school attendance for their child without having to send their child to a school building. With no criteria for home schooling in this state it allows for parents who are not capable of providing an education for their child a legal way to not send their child to school.

In terms of the issue of home schooling and the impact for truancy, the Truancy Task Force was advised that there is currently a task force looking at home school issues. Once this was known the Truancy Task Force decided not to take on this issue and expressed its concerns related to truancy and truancy court in writing to the Home Schooling Task Force.

A larger concern for the Task Force was looking forward and evaluating potential school attendance standards. Consistent standards should be established for school attendance statewide (every district has its own attendance policy). The task force is also recommending an attempt to change the long term mindsets of students of not just requiring that a youth attend school until age 16 but to extend the compulsory school age to 18.

In addition, as the truancy caseload grows for the court the obvious ripple effect happens for the schools. The job of Visiting Teacher has become highly visible and significant in the handling truancy cases from referral to possible court proceedings. This has become a decidedly specialized position within the school districts and the caseloads are greatly disproportionate. The number of student units a district has determines the number of visiting teachers which funding is provided. Since there is no requirement that the districts use apportioned visiting teacher money for that specific function, districts may use positions intended to handle visiting teacher responsibilities for other purposes. The Truancy Task Forces perceives this ability to use discretion in spending as allowing many students who are truant to be falling through the cracks of the system due to lack of specifically assigned manpower and time to work on these cases.

The Task Force has also determined that the decision as to whether a case should be referred to the district visiting teacher for truancy assessment should not be left to the discretion of building principals. By having this discretion, building principals may choose which children should be referred based on their history and experience with the family and not based on the pattern of unexcused absences. The school attendance code clearly states what the reporting process should be for grades K-5. The process the districts use for students above grade 5 should be consistent and based on the code, which states that after three unexcused absences a process for assessing potential truancy problems my be initiated. This situation has been presented and discussed with the Delaware Visiting Teachers Association and they are also in favor of having all cases referred to them for evaluation. Additional legislative changes will be requested to make this change for mandatory referral of cases.

The Truancy Task Force has also taken on the discussion of new county ordinances to establish truancy drop off centers similar to the Wilmington Center throughout the state. These centers would provide for a safe supervised environment for youth that are picked up by the police during school hours. The drop off centers has the capacity to begin a case management process, which would attempt to reengage the youth in school. Potential providers for the service would be agencies/organizations that have sites statewide (i.e. YMCA Resource Center, Boys’ and Girls’ Club).

III.        RECOMMENDATIONS AND GOALS

During the six months the Truancy Task Force met the following recommendations have been discussed and have been determined to be final recommendations for this report:

  • Propose legislative changes that would allow for a school district to file charges against a youth age 12 or over without having to establish an Affirmative Defense.
  • Proposed legislation that would allow “Probation Before Judgement” in certain truancy cases to avoid criminal conviction when the court conditions have been met.
  • Proposed legislation that would mandate the building principal to make referrals to the visiting teachers. Referrals to be based on unexcused absence standards only. Committee recommends that the principal must notify visiting teacher of potential truancy cases.
  • The Visiting Teacher Association and the Department of Education have developed and submitted to the Department of Education a new job description for Visiting Teacher positions and the Task Force agrees to support those changes.
  • The Task Force recommends that units for visiting teachers in each district be used for visiting teachers only.
  • The Task Force is also recommending that the unit count that determines the number of visiting teachers per student be decreased.
  • The Department of Education is currently working on the standardization of the language of the school attendance code for statewide application and the Task Force has agreed to support whatever recommendations they have or will submit.
  • The Truancy Task Force is recommending that a new task force be convened to look at extending the compulsory school age to 18.

The Truancy Task Force will send a letter to the Governor’s Task Force on Home Schooling citing its concerns as home schooling relates to truancy and Truancy Court.

The Truancy Task Force recommends that consideration be given for establishing truancy drop off centers throughout the state similar to the Wilmington Drop Off Center.

IV.        CONCLUSION

The Truancy Task Force would like to extend its appreciation to the state agencies, which offered their assistance in providing the Committee with testimony and expertise on the truancy issues as they relate to the Truancy Courts and their systems.

The Truancy Courts in the State of Delaware have had a significant impact on school attendance with high compliance rates and increased rates of school completion. The Truancy Courts have become an effective, successful intervention tool in increasing school attendance and in lowering the drop out rate. The legislative changes and recommendations made in this report are to enhance the efforts of all professionals involved in reducing truancy in the state of Delaware.

The Truancy Task Force also asks to have fiscal support of legislative changes, which will decrease the ratio of students to visiting teachers. In addition the Justice of the Peace Court would require a one-time cost for programming in order for the computer system to generate all necessary reports related to the filing and processing of truancy cases.

V.        ENCLOSURES

House Concurrent Resolution #16

Proposed legislative changes related to charging students with “Failure to Attend” and “Probation Before Judgement”

Proposed legislation regarding Mandatory Reporting by school principals to visiting teachers for any student meeting the unexcused absence criteria.

Proposed legislation related to “Mandatory referral to Visiting Teachers for Truancy Assessment”

Letter from the New Castle County Interagency Community Council

June 6, 2001 Minutes

June 20, 2001 Minutes

July 18, 2001 Minutes

August 29, 2001Minutes

September 19, 2001Minutes

October 17, 2001 Minutes

November 7, 2001Minutes

December 19, 2001 Minutes

Current draft of Visiting Teacher Job Description

Current copy of Chapter 27. School Attendance

Letter to School Districts requesting Attendance Policies

Copy of letter received from the YMCA Resource Center indicating the possible cost’s to provide truancy drop off centers.

Copy of Truancy Ordinance for the City of Wilmington

Legislation to convene a Home School Committee

Letter to Senator Sokola regarding Truancy Court concerns related to home schooling.

Senate Joint Resolution No.9, Creating a Committee to research and issue a report regarding issues relating to home schooling in the state of Delaware.

Copy of draft Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Education/Public School Districts, Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, and the Justice of the Peace Court.

The task force has also collected the attendance policies for all school districts but due to the volume these documents are not attached but are available for review upon request.

Respectfully submitted by,
Janet Urdahl
Truancy Task Force Staff