Douglas County is getting tougher on students who skip school.
This semester, the Lawrence school district and the county's top criminal prosecutor began a set of new procedures meant to keep students in class - and to force them to pay a higher price when they skip.
"I think it's going to catch a lot of kids by surprise," Dist. Atty. Charles Branson said.
Here are the key changes:
¢ New definition of "unexcused": It used to be that to receive an unexcused absence, a student in the district had to miss at least half the school day with no valid excuse. But last month the school board changed its policy so that all it takes is one missed class during the school day to qualify as an unexcused absence.
Students are considered truant if they have three unexcused absences in a row, five in a semester or seven in a school year.
¢Tougher approach to older students: Branson's office has begun filing "Child in Need of Care" court cases for students ages 16 and 17 as soon as they are identified as truants. The court case forces parents to deal with the issue and ultimately can put the children into foster care, if a judge decides it's needed.
In the past, prosecutors rarely went to court in cases involving 16- and 17-year-old students. Instead, the school district gave them the chance to complete a "truancy diversion program" offered through Kansas University and the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
The program, which pairs students with a KU student mentor, has a high success rate with younger children who are motivated by the threat of a court case if they don't go back to school.
But it had no teeth for 16- and 17-year-olds because, under Kansas law, children are allowed to legally drop out at that age with a parent's signature. If an older student was failing the diversion program, the parent often would allow the student to drop out rather than face a possible court case, said Susan Eakins, who oversees the diversion program for SRS.
"We didn't have a lot of clout," she said.
Now, in cases involving 16- and 17-year-olds, Branson's office will file the court case as soon as the student is declared truant. The pending court case will prevent the parent from letting the child drop out, Eakins said, and then the student will be offered diversion.
The new definition of an unexcused absence affects only Lawrence school district students, but the new policy for 16- and 17-year-olds is in effect countywide. Younger students will still be offered a chance at diversion before a court case is filed.
Bruce Passman, the district's deputy superintendent, said the changes happened after two people - Lawrence High School associate principal Matt Brungardt and Free State High School assistant principal Mike Hill - approached Branson's office with their frustrations about seeing children skipping school with no consequences. Passman said his sense was that more students had been skipping, but detailed figures weren't available Thursday.
As of this week, about 100 students at each school could be classified as truant, he said. At the start of this school year, Free State had 1,240 students and LHS 1,286.
"We want to get these kids in school all the time," Passman said. "I think you've got a concerted community approach to dealing with truancy now : that maybe wasn't as strong before."