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Addressing delinquency starts with keeping kids in school, educators tell legislative committee

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Public Domains
From left: Dan Nelson, Jane Stavem, Tom Culver

In 2014 the South Dakota legislature approved reforms for the juvenile justice system that would give services to delinquent kids through teams of professionals in their communities.

Prior to the enactment of this reform, kids were routinely sent to the Department of Corrections even for nonviolent crimes or status offenses such as running away or truancy.

Now a legislative committee is studying how well that diversion has worked. The Study Committee on Juvenile Justice heard from educators, law officers, and the Unified Judicial System at its first meeting held in June.

There’s a common thread running through this discussion. By the time a kid gets to a community response team, it’s often too late. The child needs an intervention sooner, when problems first become apparent. And that first alert is most often truancy.

Three school administrators spoke with the interim study committee at its day-long meeting, telling of the frustrations of trying to do well by the children they serve.

One of them was Tom Culver, superintendent of schools at Avon, a small town about 40 miles northwest of Yankton. Culver said in 1999, he started his job as secondary principal, and for nine years, he filed no cases for truancies.

In 2008, he became superintendent, and things had changed.

“First of all, about 10 years ago, I started to notice that our elementary attendance was much worse than our high school,” Culver said.

Avon is one of three districts in the state that don’t bus kids to school, he said. Instead, they pay mileage.

“If a kid lives out in the country, and a parent is not very responsible of getting them to school, a third-grader can’t drive to school,” Culver said. “And if they don’t have older siblings to transport them, then that becomes an issue.”

He said the primary problems his school has with students is truancy and disruptive behavior. And like the other presenters at the committee meeting, he has seen students developing a fearless disrespect for authority at a time when consequences are in decline.

South Dakota’s juvenile justice reforms rely on a team approach within the community, but Culver said in a rural area, there are few professionals to serve. And so, school employees do what they can.

“Over the years, I’ve been asked by parents to go over to the house, and I’ve got kids out of bed and brought them to school,” Culver said. “And I know there’s a lot of other administrators and my colleagues have done the same thing. You know, we want those kids in school, because that’s the best place for them.”

Truancy is an issue in schools of all sizes. Dr. Jane Stavem is Superintendent of Schools in Sioux Falls. She recounted how difficult it can be to get the parents of truant children involved in fixing the situation.

“When phone numbers change, when you can no longer reach a parent, when you’ve gone to that home many, many times to literally knock on the door—when I was a principal, I would knock on doors and windows and walls until I was so annoying that you would come to the door—and those are the kinds of things that people do repeatedly,” she said.

Stavem agrees that the first response to larger behavior problems is to aggressively battle truancy.

“Whenever you think about what school districts do to prevent and deal with behaviors, there are layers of things that happen,” she said. “The first layer is trying to keep that student engaged in their learning, connected with friends, keeping their parents connected, so that they continue to come to school.”

School districts do what they can to get absent kids back into school, but if the family moves, it’s sometimes impossible to find them again and make sure the student is enrolled elsewhere. This appears to be a statewide problem, according to testimony at the committee meeting.

Stavem explained one reason: “Our current law says that after a period of time we drop them off the rolls so they no longer generate funding, and I have said many times I feel like it’s too easy to be a dropout in the state of South Dakota.”

Stavem noted, as Culver did, that juveniles have become bolder in their defiance and disrespect. She said contempt for authority in a school is nothing new, but where it once was an outlier, now it is the norm.

Two lieutenants with the Rapid City Police Department told the committee that same thing, that more and more juveniles lack respect for authority and have no fear of consequences.

One of them is Tim Doyle. He told the interim committee that he’s been working with kids for 10 years, and the biggest frustration is watching them escalate to violence.

“It never starts with a stolen car,” he said. “That’s where it gets to.”

Doyle said truancy is the first signal that things are going wrong. “You know, they start missing school, and then they start running away.”

Doyle is part of a Youth Focus Team that expends a lot of its efforts on runaways, who are at a stage of delinquent behavior that can still be addressed outside the courts.

“And when they’re running away, they’re getting exposed to older people, older juveniles, drugs, alcohol, all that stuff, the criminal world, and that’s a big draw,” Doyle said. “It sucks them in.”

Doyle said kids without direction inside the home look outside the home for a leader.

The police lieutenant expressed the same frustration as did the other professionals who spoke before the interim committee: intervention efforts don’t reach children early enough.

“We’re always fighting the fire,” he said. “All the resources are always going towards the back end, the kids who are doing the more serious behavior, and we miss out on catching these kids earlier. The behavior is there; the flags are there. We just need to catch it, and if you can catch a kid in a family when they’re 9 or 10, versus when they’re 16, it’s going to be cheaper, it’s going to be easier. But this is the way it’s always been.”

One purpose of juvenile justice reforms enacted in 2014 has been to find solutions outside the courtroom.

Brookings County State’s Attorney Dan Nelson said almost everyone agrees that truant kids don’t belong in jail. “If I had a mandatory minimum jail sentence that I could seek for truancy, I still wouldn’t seek it, because I don’t think a jail cell is going to make that kid want to go to school.”

Nelson said it’s most productive to find the root of the problem and deal with it.

He said the town of Brookings has a diversion team coordinated by the Boys and Girls Club that works with nonviolent juveniles and reaches out to parents.

When kids enter into diversion, Nelson said they typically spend four to six months in a program tailored for them that might include treatment for addiction or mental illness, community service, job training and placement, academic assistance, and tours of tech schools and college campuses.

The state’s attorney is very enthusiastic about an alternative high school started in January, run at a teen center, where 23 of the most problematic kids in the public high school were referred.

“What we’ve heard from these alternative kids is that they struggle with anxiety and sort of the environment of a traditional high school for a whole host of reasons,” Nelson said.

The one-on-one attention and relief from stressors in the traditional classroom has produced encouraging results, Nelson told the committee.

Rep. Mike Stevens spoke frequently during the committee meeting, recounting his experiences as a defense attorney and a school board member. He clarified what had appeared to be a hard stance on truancy.

“I want to make sure everybody understands I’m not talking about sending the kid to jail. I don’t think it would hurt to send the parents to jail,” Stevens said.

Nelson replied that an even harder approach is available.

“If there’s been an investigation where we can prove that the parents knew this kid should be in school but they’re dropping the ball in that area, we have brought those parents into court and we have convicted them.”

Nelson said if the available sanctions on parents aren’t harsh enough, the legislature will have to correct that.

The interim committee will meet again this summer, with draft recommendations drawn up in September.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007.