Opinion

Truancy program keeps kids in school, out of court | COMMENTARY

Dan Satterberg -
Dan Satterberg
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By DAN SATTERBERG

King County prosecuting attorney

Many people are surprised when I tell them that we have a Truancy Dropout Prevention Unit in the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. “Shouldn’t you be going after the serious criminals, instead of kids who skip school?” they ask. The truth is that when it comes to protecting public safety, there is no better strategy than making sure that every child succeeds in school.

Under Washington law, school attendance is mandatory up until age 16. This is part of a package of laws called the “Becca laws” named after a 13-year-old girl who dropped out of school, ran away from home and was murdered by a sex offender in Spokane in the mid-1990s. The Legislature knew, as we know now, that dropping out of school puts young people at an extreme risk of being crime victims and criminal offenders.

In fact, young people who drop out of high school are five times more likely to go to prison than their classmates who earn a high school diploma. People who attend some amount of college are five times less likely to go to prison than those with a high school education. Every layer of education is like a protective blanket that protects the potential of that young person and protects our community.

Washington’s truancy law says that any child who misses seven days of school in a month, or 10 in a quarter, is officially “truant.” Although school districts are required to file a truancy petition at this point, they are also required to take steps to re-engage students in school.

My office works with school districts throughout King County to host workshops designed to understand why the student is missing school. At the end of the workshop, the school, the student, and the parents or guardian sign an agreement designed to re-engage the student with an educational track.

The law is a court-based scheme, but I am more interested in having the youth attend school than attend court. Only if a student continues to fail to attend school after a workshop agreement is signed, do we take the next step and pursue a petition with the juvenile court. Fewer than 10 percent of the 1,200 petitions filed last school year ended up in court, where students and their parents faced additional court-based consequences.

Here in the Renton School District, the district maintains two employees who handle truancy petitions. One who focuses on the legal paperwork aspect and another who focuses on interventions by way of making personal connections with the students struggling with attendance. This model is one of the more efficient and effective ones used in King County.

We know that truancy is a red flag that leads to dropping out of school, and increases the chance for risky behaviors, substance abuse, and involvement in the criminal justice system. School districts, teachers, and your prosecuting attorney are working hard to keep students from dropping out of school.

It is in the best interest of the child and the community.

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg can be reached at attorney.prosecuting@kingcounty.gov.

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