Tahlequah Daily Press

August 14, 2013

Local schools take truancy issues seriously

By SEAN ROWLEY
Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — srowley@tahlequahdailypress.com

Is it easier to count the number of kids who have played hooky, or who haven’t?

Though many students may tell tales of days off to rival Ferris Bueller’s, truancy is taken seriously by local schools and Cherokee County.

“If nothing else, it costs the schools money,” said Officer Bob Lewandowski. “They want to keep the kids in school and attendance high. Of course, we’re also talking about the kids’ futures. Truants are more likely to drop out. I know a lot of students may get bored, or their parents don’t make them go. But it is more important now than 20 or 40 years ago to graduate from high school. Get that diploma, then go from there.”

Characterizing the problem of truancy in Cherokee County, Lewandowski called it “normal.”

“I don’t think it is any worse here than anywhere else,” he said. “Our truancy court meets once a month in front of Judge [Mark] Dobbins. There are four School Resource officers in Tahlequah and two for the county. We share information. Different schools may handle the problem a little differently, but Cherokee County itself is consistent.”

Lewandowski said he usually sends at least 50 truancy letters a week, though not all those students are necessarily truant.

“That number includes all our letters,” he said. “I send an advisory letter to parents if a student has had three unexcused absences in a quarter, and another if they’ve had six. If it gets up to 10 the parents receive a citation and can be called to court unless extenuating circumstances can be demonstrated.”

Failure to compel one’s children to attend school is a misdemeanor. In court, the parents can make their cases. A second court date is often set, which the children attend.

Though the reasons for truancy may vary with the students’ age, its frequency does not.

“High school kids may be skipping,” Lewandowski said. “For younger students who can’t drive, it may be that they are skipping the bus, but usually it is the parents not being persistent about getting their kids to school. But truancy happens at all levels, and isn’t more likely with one age group or the other.”

The job can vary for Lewandowki. He has seen parents serve jail sentences of up to five days for not getting their children to school. He has been called by parents to roust kids from their beds.

“It can be a balancing act trying to keep students in school,” he said. “Some just need a little attention. Some aren’t even enrolled - which tells me the parents are not involved. Sometimes I try to remind them of the social aspect. I wasn’t the world’s greatest student, but I had a lot of fun. I got to see my friends every day.”

There are some old romantic stereotypes about truancy, but Lewandowski said they bear little resemblance to reality.

“It isn’t like we go out to stop Spanky and Our Gang from going fishing,” he said. “We can’t chase kids. We don’t have the manpower or the time. We don’t have a detention center, so when we do pick up truants, we either take them home or back to school.”

Lewandowski believes the county’s methods of handling truancy are effective, if not perfect.

“Sometimes you do keep seeing the same kids, or kids from the same family,” he said. “I’m not saying our way is the best in the country, but I don’t know what else we could do. I like the way we handle it because it isn’t intended to be embarrassing or punitive. It isn’t severe, just an incentive to get the kids to school. I think it is a pretty positive program.”