O.C. ‘Scared Straight’ Program Pushes Truants Back Into Class

Times Staff Writer

To Joel, the choice was simple: Go to school and be ridiculed because he had a hard time reading or stay home and smoke pot with his friends.

So the 16-year-old Santa Ana boy skipped hundreds of days in his first two years of high school, until ditching caught up with him and an Orange County judge gave him another simple choice -- school or jail.

“I didn’t want to get locked up,” Joel said after a recent court appearance to check on his progress. “Being scared about that made me get over being embarrassed about how I couldn’t keep up in school.”


The county’s 3-year-old truancy court program is one of many launched across the country in the last few years -- “scared-straight” operations in which students can be tossed into juvenile hall for ditching school and parents can be ordered to attend class with their children.

The results, advocates say, have been impressive, yielding dozens of success stories like Joel’s.

Students and their parents are referred to the program after they fail to respond to other interventions, including threatening notes from school, group presentations by a county prosecutor and meetings with school administrators.

After making a contract with the judge, promising to go to school to avoid jail, they appear monthly to discuss their progress. After six months to a year of visits, prosecutors can dismiss the case if they feel the students have formed good habits.

The court program emphasizes intervention over punishment, although the latter still comes into play. Some chronic ditchers quickly reform when their parents must miss work and attend classes with them. Others find themselves in juvenile hall.

The man who handles the truancy court program, Presiding Judge of Juvenile Court Robert B. Hutson, has an office stuffed with SpongeBob SquarePants memorabilia but transforms from teddy bear to tyrant in just seconds.


“I’m going to ruin your Christmas,” Hutson scolded a 17-year-old boy during a recent morning of progress hearings. School attendance reports showed the teen had attended only one day in four weeks and had been spending the rest of the time with his girlfriend and their two children.

The judge ordered his bailiff to lock the boy up, and the teen spent the next hour sitting in a courtroom chair, wiping away tears with his cuffed hands while Hutson handled other cases.

At one point, the judge pointed at the boy and shook his head. “He came in here acting so tough, looking so cool,” the judge said. “Now he’s sitting there crying like a big punk.”

The “tough love” approach is needed when it comes to students who simply refuse to go to school, the judge said later.

“I do what parents should be doing,” he said.

But he recognizes that other issues often contribute to a truant child: learning disabilities, single mothers unable to handle their children or abuse or addiction by family members or by the students themselves. He has called for children to be taken from their parents, for the parents to pay hefty fines or attend parenting skills classes or for students to enroll in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

“This should be called Dysfunctional Family Court, not truancy court,” Hutson said. He sympathizes with children in difficult situations but maintains that nothing should keep them from attending school.


Deputy Dist. Atty. Susan Riezman said that pursuing truancy cases differed greatly from typical criminal cases.

“It’s definitely a different kind of role for a prosecutor,” she said. “The goal is not punishment, it’s trying to get the kids back in school.”

It took Joel, the Santa Ana boy with the learning disability, a few months to get the message. Like other students interviewed for this story, the name used is not his real first name because he is a juvenile.

Joel came in for his progress hearing wearing baggy clothes, a stud in each ear and a wide grin. He had good reason: He’d been going to school regularly, and even a fight that got him suspended for five days didn’t dim Hutson’s enthusiasm.

“You’re on your way,” the judge said. “Don’t worry; we’ll get you in to those special ed classes you need. I’ve got your back.”

Another student fared the best when Riezman, who handles truancy cases full time, requested that charges be dropped against him. She showed the judge a letter from a teacher who originally wrote that the 17-year-old Yorba Linda boy belonged in custody but now was calling the teen a model student.


“This is not the young man I met at first,” Hutson said as the boy’s mother cried from happiness. “Case dismissed, and I’m out of your life.”

After leaving the hearing, the teen said the judge’s tactics had worked. Before truancy court, Robert said, all he cared about was getting drunk or high. Even coming to court didn’t faze him at first, not until Hutson ordered him locked up in juvenile hall for three hours.

Then Robert made a deal with the judge, promising to spend a month in rehab then start going to school again. For the last five months, he’s been in school nearly every day.

“Being scared turned him around,” his mother said. “The judge puts the fear factor out there, but he also gives a lot of praise when it’s deserved.”

There are lots of second and third chances too. The boy Hutson had locked up that morning was released an hour later, after promising that he would live with his father and attend school.

“You have to do what I tell you to do,” Hutson told him. “You have no choice. You are a child. But if I hear you’re not going to school, I will come and get you, boy.”


The program seems to work. Of the roughly two dozen students Hutson sees each month, nearly all improve their behavior within six months. At least two teens who started the program with dismal attendance records and several failing grades made up the work and were on track to graduate this spring.

Other cities have embraced the approach, with more on the way. There are programs similar to Orange County’s in Buffalo, N.Y.; Lansing, Mich.; and Kansas City, Mo. School and court officials in Baltimore and St. Louis hope to launch truancy courts by the time the new school year starts.

Still, Hutson worries that when the state grant that provided seed money to start the Orange County program expires, cash-strapped school districts won’t be able to fund it. The judge plans to appeal to school officials to donate the funds, arguing that the program saves the district money by putting students back in the classroom.

Orange County school officials are optimistic that funding will be found.

“I don’t know right now where that money would come from, but people are not going to want to give up a program with such positive effects due to lack of funding,” said Georgiann Boyd, coordinator of students services for the Orange County Department of Education and a member of the countywide Truancy Response Committee.

Boyd also acknowledged the powerful effect court intervention had on truant children.

“School personnel don’t carry the same weight as law enforcement,” Boyd said. “Believe me, we try everything at our level to get the kids back in school before going to the courts, but for those egregious cases where we’ve tried everything, now we have something that has guaranteed impact.”