SEBRING - Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton believes a new state-funded position will help in Highlands County's battle against school truancy.
"We are trying to reignite, if you will, special attention to the truancy issues," Benton said.
The Department of Children and Families has provided an additional staff position to work exclusively in Highlands County with the parents and children who are being helped through the "In Need of Services" programs.
In the past, the county has had to share with Polk and Hardee counties a staff member who intercedes early in the process before a child becomes delinquent due to truancy, runaway or family crises situations, she noted.
The governor just approved more funding for these services and named Highlands County specifically to be able to receive this additional help, Benton said.
"I am personally a huge proponent and believer in the research that says 'truancy is the leading predictor to delinquency,'" she said. "So if we don't pay attention on the front end we are just going to keep our jails full on the backside."
The new staff position will be with Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., which serves the Tampa and central Florida area, in offering substance abuse prevention and intervention services, foster care and adoption service, runaway/youth crisis services and family counseling.
The initial effort will be at the elementary level, she noted, because, typically at that level, truancy is not the fault of the student.
According to the law, the parent is responsible for the child being in school, Benton said. "It could result in a criminal charge [misdemeanor] against the parent if they fail to have their children go to school."
Benton is among a number of school and county officials who have been advocating for changes at the state level to combat truancy.
There are a number of state laws that cover the truancy issue, Benton said. They are trying to get a legislative body to study those laws to simplify and speed up the efforts of law enforcement and social workers.
"By the time you go through the process as it exists in law, some kids are absent from school for 90 days and, basically, they have missed a whole year of school," she said. Then it is very difficult for these students to recover, she added.