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Educator says failing students need alternatives

Photo by Johnny Sundby for Rapid City Area Schools
Nicole Swigart, interim CEO/Superintendent of Rapid City Area Schools

A legislative interim committee is meeting this summer to study juvenile justice, and committee members have heard much about truancy as a doorway to criminal behavior. At its second meeting this month, the committee heard from Rapid City’s top administrator who says some truant students might benefit from a new education track that does not currently exist.

Nicole Swigart is interim CEO of Rapid City Area Schools. She says older truant students used to be handed a citation that required them to pay a fine, but that did not get results. She told committee members, “What we were hearing were students saying, ‘I can just pay to get out of school. I’ll just pay twenty-five dollars, and I don’t have to go to school anymore.’”

So now truant students with five or more absences are referred to the Pennington County State’s Attorney, where a team decides on juvenile diversion or formal charges.

But Swigart says eventually students end up back in school, where they’re failing.

She says older students with far too few credits, struggling with math and reading, need something else. She suggests training and apprenticeship in building trades.

“Instead of putting a kid on a high school diploma track, it would put them on a certification track, and it would be counted by the state as similar to a GED,” she said.

Swigart says the GED test requires ninth-grade reading skills, and most of the kids she’s talking about don’t have them. She wants a program for students to learn how to frame up walls, put up sheetrock, paint, pour concrete, and drive trucks and earn credits while working.

“We have local agencies that are begging for people qualified to fill these positions,” she said.

Swigart says in the absence of an alternate plan, another solution to truancy might lie with revamping the offense of “failure to send,” charging parents with not getting their children to school. She says currently the charge has no teeth; parents have had failure-to-send warrants for three or four years but never had contact with law enforcement.

The juvenile justice committee will meet again to discuss these and other recommendations ahead of the next legislative session, perhaps to craft laws to more effectively address juvenile crime and detention in the state.

Rapid City freelancer Victoria L. Wicks has been producing news for SDPB since August 2007. She Retired from this position in March 2023.