Highlands County is on track to get a full-time counselor to work toward reducing school truancy, which has been a longtime concern of area educators and officials.
The governor’s budget allocated some additional funds to work with Children in Need of Services and Families in Need of Services, Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton said Thursday. “Through that allocation, Highlands County has been given a full-time case manager that will help us with our truancy situation.”
Benton said the case manager would work for Youth and Family Alternatives.
Founded in 1970, Youth and Family Alternatives, Inc. serves the Tampa and central Florida area offering substance abuse prevention and intervention services, foster care and adoption service, runaway/youth crisis services and family counseling.
Highlands and Hardee counties are served through a Family Help location in Lakeland and a Youth Crisis Shelter in Bartow.
Benton noted, “We share people with Polk and Hardee and we have enough need of our own that we have asked for our own counselor.
“We are specifically going to try to develop some ‘best practices’ to intervene with students, and their families, who are constantly missing school.”
They will focus first on students in elementary school and then middle school, she said.
“We are going to work on both sides, provide whatever services need providing, but if it is clearly the parent who is not getting the child to school then we will pursue charges on the parents for failing to have their kids in school according to the law,” Benton said.
School Board Member Donna Howerton said, “It’s not good that Highlands County has such a high percentage of truancy, but the governor is seeing the seriousness of this and putting something in place to help address it.”
She remembers a statement that the difference between success and failure in the lives of children is whether they are learning in streets or in school where they belong.
The biggest problem facing failing schools are dropouts and truancy, Howerton said. When students are truant what can a teacher do, because you can’t grade nothing?
As Benton has said many times, truancy is once of the most powerful indicators of juvenile crime, Howerton said. Students miss out on education and then are exposed to opportunities to commit crime or be victimized by crime.
According to data from the Florida Department of Education, during the 2010-11 school year statewide 9.5 percent of the students were absent 21 or more days.
In Highlands County 1,541 students (11.1 percent) were absent 21 or more days.
Lake Placid High School had 187 students, and the highest percentage (21.9 percent) of students in the county, who were absent 21 or more days in 2010-11.
Youth and Family Alternatives Vice President of Prevention Andrew Coble said, “the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services had put in a Legislative request for additional funding for our counseling services that we do with truancy youth and governable youth to provide more services to rural counties.”
The funding request has made it through the budgets of the governor, House and Senate and now sits in appropriations, he said. So it is yet to be determined what amount of funding they will get, but the hopes are that it will fund one full-time counselor for Highlands County.
Youth and Family Alternatives provides services for seven counties, Coble said. The Lakeland office has two counselors who cover Polk, Highlands and Hardee counties.
“Right now Highlands only gets one of our people, from one of our other counties, maybe once or twice a week tops,” he said.
Youth and Family Alternatives receives funding from a number of foundations and county and state agencies including the Florida Department of Children and Families, Florida Department of Health and the Florida Juvenile Justice System.