SEBRING - New procedures this year shows the Highlands County School District and law enforcement is serious about curbing school truancy.
A 34-year-old Sebring man was arrested Monday on a misdemeanor charge of failure to appear before a judge after he was charged with failing to require his child attend school.
"We are not playing; attendance is serious," said Marcia Davis, School Board of Highlands County student services director. "We want to see this as a positive."
She said they are focusing on creating more attendance accountability for students, teachers, schools and school districts.
"We are trying to keep these kids in school because you can have the best curriculum and the best teachers, but if the kid is at home it doesn't matter what you are doing," Davis said.
The district has implemented different procedures this year in handling truancy at the elementary school level.
After the parent has been notified and once it gets to a certain point, Davis explained, an affidavit is done and the parent has to go before a judge.
"We've already had one [parent] who was to go before the judge and didn't show up and they did a warrant for their arrest," she said.
Previously, before the new policy, a parent would go before the school's attendance review committee and believe nothing would happen to them, Davis said.
In the past two years, Davis visited other districts to review their truancy policies and worked with Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton and the State Attorneys Office to implement the new truancy procedures in the elementary schools.
"It is going very well," she said.
In summary, once a student has a number of unexcused absences, a letter goes to the parents and a social worker visits the home to see if there are any extenuating circumstances or any services that could help the family, Davis said. Once a student accrues 15 unexcused absences within 90 days, the case package is turned over to the State Attorney's Office.
Also new this school year, through state funding from the Florida Network, Stephanie Langford began serving in August as a counselor/case manager to address truancy in Highlands County. A second person, Laura Hawthorne, was added to the effort in December.
Langford said they become involved when a child age 8-16 has about eight or nine unexcused absences.
"We work with the kids, parents and the schools to find out why they are being truant," Langford said. Parents and students are informed that if attendance does not improve there are consequences.
"We are more of a preventative program because there was nothing really in place in Highlands County that was preventative," she noted
The Florida Network had been operating the program in Polk County and didn't know if two counselors would be needed in Highlands County, which is much smaller than Polk County, she said.
But, both she and Hawthorne are opening about eight new cases per month while maintaining a case load of about 20.
Davis said at middle and high schools, in most instances, the unexcused absences is a student issue. In elementary school parents are considered responsible.
"Most of the time with elementary kids, it is the parents who don't want to get them up, don't want to take them, let them stay home; it's easier than trying to get them up, just to let them not go," she said. "That's why we are handling it differently because most of the time little children want to go to school
"As a school district, we are working on providing whatever it is to be able to keep these kids in school, but the parents have to do their part."