Schools cracking down on truancy

GREENFIELD — Parents who don’t take their children to school could be reported to law enforcement officials earlier next school year for possible prosecution, under a stricter countywide truancy policy.

Prosecutor Brent Eaton is requiring school administrators to report students who have missed 15 or more school days in the year, starting with the 2015-16 school year. The current threshold is 21.

And while Eaton understands there are legitimate excuses for missing school — illness or funerals, for example — he hopes the reporting process will be streamlined, and local officials can come to some conclusions about why students are missing school.

“Working together, we’ve got something we’re optimistic will have a positive impact next year,” Eaton said.

The new policy grows out of a 2011 model, when former prosecutor Michael Griffin decided to crack down on truancy and educational neglect.

Eaton said when he took office this year, several school officials approached him to make sure the initiative to track students who have been missing school would continue.

The current model has school officials follow a flowchart, based on whether absences were called in and whether they were excused. The more he studied the process, Eaton said, the more he decided a change was needed.

“It just seemed very cumbersome and not particularly clear,” Eaton said. “I really thought it was something that could be improved on and make it more efficient and effective to accomplish the goal we all share.”

Now, school administrators will notify parents around five absences that their children are accumulating excessive absences. Parents will be called in to meet with school officials before 15 absences have been reached. Then the child’s case will be sent to Joshua Sipes, juvenile department supervisor for the Hancock County Probation Department.

Sipes said he will then determine whether the Department of Child Services or the county prosecutor should be notified.

Depriving a child of an education falls under the Indiana criminal code of neglect. The Level 6 felony is punishable by up to 2½ years in jail and a fine of up to $10,000.

While cases rarely reach prosecution in Hancock County, Sipes said officials hope to send the message to parents of how important education is for their children.

“I want them to know that we’re not trying to shock the system,” he said. “We’re trying to slowly eradicate habitual attendance issues. We’re willing to work with every family… We’re really going to be focusing on those kids that have missed two, three, four times the allowable attendance rate.”

Letters of the policy change will be sent home to parents at the beginning of the 2015-16 school year. School boards across the county have recently been signing off on the letter — found in student policy handbooks — which is signed by Eaton, Sheriff Mike Shepherd, Chief Probation officer Wayne Addison and Hancock Circuit Court Judge Richard Culver.

Local principals recognize there might be some parents upset with the new standard of 15 days, but they say they’re willing to work with those whose absences are excusable.

“We’re the first line of defense there (at the school),” said Jobie Whitaker, Maxwell Intermediate School principal. “If we know the rationale and the reason and it’s legitimate, that person’s name is not going to make it to that level (of prosecution). The problem becomes, not every parent is going to agree with us.”

Whitaker added he’s pleased with the countywide initiative. If a Greenfield-Central student transfers to Eastern Hancock, for example, and continues to miss school, a paper trail will follow them.

Heather Whitaker, principal of Mt. Comfort Elementary School, said only five days of absence is considered excessive by the Indiana Department of Education. This school year alone, Whitaker said, she has 21 students who have missed at least 20 days of school. There’s a variety of reasons, from illness to court appearance to funerals. But some just don’t show up at school.

Reaching parents of elementary school children is vital, she added. It’s been primarily elementary school principals who have been meeting with prosecutors in recent years.

“The whole reason we started this at the elementary level is so we could have kids and parents understand the importance of being at school before they get to middle school and high school age where it hits their credits, and they’re unable to graduate,” Heather Whitaker said. “We hope it will carry on up to the high school. It will be a couple of years before we see it working.”

About the policy

Schools will change the way they report parents who have not been bringing their students to school starting with the 2015-16 school year. Here’s a look at the old policy, and what’s coming soon:

Old: Principals followed a flow chart, and based on whether absences were considered excused, the case would be reported to the prosecutors office after 21 days.

New: Cases will be reported to the prosecutor after a child misses 15 days of school. Before that happens, parent meetings are conducted at the school, and the case is referred to the juvenile division of the Hancock County Probation Department to determine if the case should be sent to the prosecutor.