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Harrison program targets truancy

by Jennifer Biller

STAFF WRITER

Truancy in public schools is a battle education administrators across the state continue to fight.

In Harrison County, school officials are meeting the challenge head on by working with Prosecuting Attorney John Scott on a new, aggressive program to curb unexcused student absences.

Last year, three schools in the county -- Lumberport Middle, South Harrison and Gore Middle -- did not meet the state's required annual performance measure for attendance, according to Superintendent Carl Friebel.

However, the schools missed the requirement by only a fraction, said Judy Schillace, county attendance director.

"They were all less than a percentage point away from the requirement, so it isn't a major problem," she said. "Our county average for attendance is 94 percent out of a possible 100."

Scott's attendance plan will be tested as a pilot program at Gore Middle School beginning this year. It is designed for students with habitual unexcused absences.

The plan cites correspondence between the child's parents, the prosecuting attorney's office and the school attendance board as means of dealing with truancy. If those methods don't work, the final step is prosecution, according to the plan.

One problem for schools trying to meet the attendance requirements is when students are suspended for behavior problems, those missed days are considered unexcused and can lower the school's overall attendance rate, Friebel said.

For that reason, school administrators may be reluctant to suspend students in order to keep the school from a violation of the state's policy for attendance.

However, Scott's program also addresses a plan of action for dealing with student suspensions and expulsions.

"We anticipate that once the principals understand they don't have to tolerate these behaviors and can suspend, there will be an increase in the number of suspensions," Friebel said. "That will obviously drop the school's attendance rate."

Therefore, Friebel has asked the state Board of Education for exemption from the state's attendance policy for the remainder of this year and all of next year, while Scott's plan goes into effect.

"I'm convinced once this discipline plan gets underway, we'll see a turnaround in attendance rates," Friebel said.

The county board will not know until mid-February if the state has approved the waiver for exemption, Friebel said.

Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or by e-mail at jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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