After 13-year-old Shawn Stacy missed more than 40% of the previous school year, Wayne County Circuit Judge Robert Chafin got tough: He ordered Shawn’s unemployed parents to attend classes with their son to ensure that the boy showed up.
Operating on the principle that students who skip school now are most likely to drop out later, states are getting tough on truants--and in West Virginia, their parents have to toe the mark as well.
With one of the sternest truancy laws in the nation to back them up, West Virginia’s attendance officers are going after parents whose children don’t go to class, threatening them with fines of up to $100 a day.
If that doesn’t work, parents can be sentenced to as much as 20 days in jail for each day their child misses school without a legitimate excuse.
In extreme cases, chronically truant children have been placed in foster homes.
“There’s no question that kids who don’t come to school are the ones who drop out as soon as they’re old enough,” said Therese Wilson, director of student services and assessment for the West Virginia Education Department.
The state’s system has some unexpected bonuses. By the end of their first semester at Wayne Middle School, county officials say, each of Shawn Stacy’s parents were well on their way to earning a General Equivalency Diploma.
Many states have taken a sterner approach to truants in recent years, said Chris Pipho, spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based information clearinghouse.
A flood of similar laws appeared after West Virginia decreed in 1988 that students who quit school before 18 would lose their driver’s licenses.
Texas decided that students could not participate in high school athletics if they missed too much school or failed to pass, and in Maine, the carrot is a hunting license: Children under 18 who fail or drop out of school are not eligible.
“Different places handle this in different ways, but most states are taking truancy more seriously than they have in the past,” Pipho said.
“West Virginia laws do seem a bit more rigorous than those in most other states. They’re really trying to crack down because they see the connection between truancy and dropouts.”
The national dropout rate was 11.2% in 1990, the latest year for which figures are available, said the Chronicle of Higher Education Almanac, which estimated West Virginia’s rate at 10.9% that year.
Wilson said her calculations, however, put the state’s rate at 17.7% in 1990.
However you figure it, the number of West Virginia students who drop out is declining, Wilson said. The rate was 19.43% in 1984-85, by state calculations, but down to 15.2% in 1992-93, she said.
Wilson credited the decline to the state’s decision 10 years ago to adopt a “performance-based” method of accrediting school systems.
“We evaluate county school districts based on dropout rates, attendance rates, test scores, a little of everything,” she said. “If the county’s absenteeism or dropout rates are higher than state averages, we work with those counties to improve them.”
Failure to improve can mean a state takeover of the system.
That severe accountability has helped, said Bennie Thomas, director of attendance and social services for the Cabell County system.
“We have to maintain 90% attendance to stay off probation,” Thomas said. “This year, so far, has been our best year. Through the first semester, we were running a 93% attendance rate countywide, and that’s the best I can ever remember.”
In calculating attendance rates, schools do not distinguish between students who simply decide not to attend and those who are absent because of illness or some other legitimate reason.
Thomas said those stringent standards have led school officials to intervene early to keep absenteeism down.
In Cabell County, a truancy petition is filed with Circuit Court if a student has more than five unexcused absences, Thomas said. Before the state began accrediting systems, attendance officers rarely took a case to court, or waited until a student had missed 80 or 100 days.
“It was just an impossible situation,” said county juvenile probation officer Doug White, who works with Thomas on the cases. “Any student who missed that many days was going to fail anyway.”
West Virginia’s compulsory attendance laws were first enacted in 1897, and the provision holding parents responsible for their children’s attendance has been on the books almost that long.
But most state officials agree that the most stringent part of the law, which allows parents to be jailed for their children’s absences, was not really enforced until 1989, the year after the state overhauled its statutes.
That year, in what officials label the first such instance, Jeanetta Norvell of Huntington was jailed for a day, then sentenced to attend school with her 15-year-old daughter, Diana.
The Norvell case was the only time Thomas has resorted to the courts and, he said, “It wasn’t real successful.” Two weeks after her mother was sentenced, Diana Norvell turned 16 and legally dropped out of school--with her mother’s consent.
Still, Thomas said, just getting students to school often can win the battle.
“We’ve got some kids now who have finally gotten into the habit of going to school, and they have discovered that they can learn something and they are actually passing classes,” he said.
“Just a little bit of success can perpetuate itself, and they find school isn’t such a bad place to be after all.”