Manatee County's truancy problems are complex, experts say

eearl@bradenton.comNovember 9, 2013 

MANATEE -- Local experts in juvenile justice, truancy and adolescent behavior met Friday to talk about the real issues of truancy. That means more than herding students from the beach to the classroom, but helping students solve issues such as health problems, difficult home lives and hunger. The group met at the Manatee Performing Arts Centre on Friday to address the needs of troubled youth and how to provide a clear path from truancy and delinquency to education.

Mike McCann, the district's supervisor of dropout prevention and alternative education, said unexcused absence rates range from 3

to 7 percent, and it can be more serious than students skipping school for a day at the beach, although McCann said that cases like that are the majority.

McCann said between 150 and 300 students with repeat unexcused absences are juvenile offenders who have been in detention centers.

McCann wants step programs, which started in July, to be more prevalent. The programs act as a stepping stone for students leaving detention centers and provide assistance in getting them back to mainstream school or into an alternative school program.

"One problem we saw is students come out of a detention center, and it may be weeks before they get back to school, or it may be weeks before they get into any kind of program," McCann said.

McCann has taught at the juvenile detention center. He said while students there say they have decided on goals or a plan, they add that when they get out, they have to survive.

Peria Duncan of the juvenile justice task force said programs should meet basic and critical educational needs. While there are great programs in the community, she said, there is still a lack of resources to meet truant children's "basic survival needs."

"It is a continuum that begins and ends in the community," Duncan said.

Jenny Donovan, the chief juvenile probation officer, said the juvenile detention center works with the school board to support at-risk youth.

"They are off-track, and some are several years behind," Donovan said. "We work to find the best fit for them, which is not always traditional high school."

Donovan said she is working to remove obstacles. Youth on probation are required to either attend school or work. If they chose to work, Donovan said, it is critical to stay on top of their work attendance or to track their job search efforts. Donovan said sometimes probationers realize that working and finding a job is not easy and they return to school.

Bruce Kelley of the juvenile detention center said the focus is to bring in more community-involved services.

"Some of these kids have had traumatic experiences, and they don't open up," Kelley said. "When you bring in services, they are able to focus on their needs."

McCann said many of these troubled kids face problems that would be daunting for adults.

"They deal with questions like 'Where will I stay tonight?' 'Will they be fed today?' " McCann said. "Where are they going to go to make that happen? How do we deal with 300 students that I am trying to better identify?"

The district offers Impact, a student assistance and mentorship program, as well as a program for teenage parents and their children. McCann said the programs watch for students developing an "attitude of defiance," inappropriate behavior and truancy patterns.

"We try to help and find the right programs," McCann said.

Some community programs outside of the school district are faith-based.

Jerry Parish, a minister and the teen outreach coordinator for the Manatee YMCA, said he has noticed issues with gangs among truant children and teenagers. Parish said that as a minister, he has worked over the years with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office to build relationships with youth who have been involved in gangs.

"You cannot just mentor them out of gangs," Parish said. "You don't have to preach, just serve."

Parish said more than 15 local churches are working to help with truancy and gang involvement. Parish mentioned Bayside Community as one of them. Parish said simple gestures from organizations such as the sheriff's office and faith-based programs can help break down barriers and encourage youth and families to seek the help they need.

"We need to get at the root of why kids are in gangs," Parish said.

Parish said that a need for family, shelter, protection or a job are reasons young people become involved in gangs.

"We are looking at a lot of details here, but the truancy issue is a fixable issue. These are not throw-away kids, and 95 percent of them can be successful," Parish said.

John Murrell, the supervisor of the school resource officer program, said officers on campus work with law enforcement, teachers and counsellors to identify problems such as gang involvement. Murrell said the patrol officers come in contact with most of the truant students.

"We try to contact someone from the schools so they can be delivered back to their school," Murrell said.

Probation officers and schools have begun working together so that when a student is released from detention, the school is ready to enroll and register the student. If the student is a no-show, it is considered a violation of the judge's orders. Murrell said this approach is fairly new.

Mike Neuges from Children's Services Manatee County said funding provides an array of services for families throughout the county, from counselling to crisis stabilization to therapy and treatment for abuse, both mental and physical. Neuges said it is important to continue to collaborate before creating new programs and to enhance the existing programs rather than produce redundancy.

Brenda Rogers of the Children Services Advisory Board said while money helps, it only plays a small role.

"Money is not the solution, but money is a good contribution toward the efforts that need to take place," Rogers said. "We have to be smart and make sure we are really addressing root causes and not just putting a Band-Aid on it."

The CEO Roundtable meeting will continue to discuss the school district's collaboration with local truancy and gang prevention programs.

A date for the next roundtable meeting has not yet been set.

Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081

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