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Juvenile Court Journal: Taking on truancy

Experts urge wider use of court in tough cases

Sunday, April 14, 2002

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

One In An Occasional Series
Jennifer Lasko began skipping school when she was 11. She'd started sixth grade and couldn't cope with moving between classes and receiving less of the special education attention that had kept her on track in elementary school.

Jennifer Lasko heads home last Tuesday. It was her first day back at school after she had been taken by caseworkers for truancy and put in a group home. She is followed by her friend, Vicki Stroud, 11. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Previous installments:

State law is helping families struggling with teen addiction

Teens often left behind

So she got sick. She suffered stomach aches early in the morning. And, as a result, she missed about 20 days that year.

In seventh grade, she just refused to get out of bed.

Her mother, Lynn Lasko, was caught off guard because her son had always boarded the school bus willingly. Lasko cajoled and threatened Jennifer. When that failed, she called the police. Tarentum officers pried Jennifer out from under the covers about 30 times that year.

Still she missed 70 days and failed seventh grade. When she returned to seventh in September, the skipping redoubled.

But this time, her intransigence led to juvenile court, an effective and, some experts say, underused option to combat truancy.

In mid-March, 13-year-old Jennifer was ordered by a judge not to miss another day of school. When she did, a caseworker took her from her home last weekend and placed her in a group home.

Just three days later, a judge permitted her to return to her mother. Stung by the out-of-home experience, she returned to school the following day.

Only time will tell if the juvenile court intervention was sufficient to keep Jennifer in school. But juvenile court judges, who wield a variety of tools to cut truancy, have ended it in many cases.

The problem is that too few truants are sent to court. Only 236 of the 7,868 children that Children Youth and Families is serving are getting that help primarily because of truancy. Yet on a typical day, 12,000 students across Allegheny County are absent, and many simply are not sick. In Pittsburgh, the total of habitually truant students exceeds 236 at just three of its high schools.

.But on a typical day, only three truants will be hauled into the Safety Zone, the center established by the city to assess reasons for truancy and help resolve them, which sometimes means a call to CYF.

Similarly, the Truancy Task Force established by county agencies to deal with school skippers under age 14 has received only 159 referrals this year -- about four per school district. Jennifer can tick off the names of six truants just at her middle school. Mark Yon, a juvenile probation officer who works with the task force, says districts grossly underemploy this process, which also ends in a referral to CYF for children who don't comply.

In addition, youngsters such as Jennifer who are sent to juvenile court often arrive there too late. It took so long to get Jennifer before a judge that she's likely to fail seventh grade a second time.

Just show up

Like so many truants, Jennifer has always had difficulties in school. By fourth grade, Highlands School District identified her as learning disabled, and she spent much of her time out of class working with a special education teacher.

That stopped in middle school. There she was assigned to special education classrooms for math and English, but attended regular classes in her other subjects. It didn't work.

Lynn Lasko says she repeatedly appealed to the district for more help, but it did nothing. Highlands declined to discuss Jennifer's case, but in court, Highlands social worker Tiffany Nix blamed the problem on the girl. Nix told Common Pleas Judge Kathleen R. Mulligan that the district believed Jennifer would be fine if she would just show up for school. "We felt she had academic difficulties because she was not going to school."

This kind of dispute is common in the cases of truants. They hate school because they're not succeeding, so they don't go. Schools say students aren't succeeding because they're not going. Sometimes they file charges against the truants with district justices, which can lead to $300 fines, but those don't resolve the problems and don't necessarily force youths back to school.

District justices typically impose fines on truants who are teens. But the parents of younger truants are often at fault, so district justices fine them instead of the child..

Common Pleas Judge Kim Clark has a case, for example, in which a young girl, the oldest of eight children, was not going to school because her mother kept her home to watch her younger brothers and sisters.

In other cases, young children stay home voluntarily to watch preschool brothers and sisters because their mother is abusing drugs. Sometimes drug-addicted parents simply do not get young children out of bed for school.

Some parents just don't value school. In a case Clark heard in February. the parents of a 16-year-old truant made numerous weak excuses for the teen's repeated absences.

Sitting next to the parents in court that Monday were the boy's two younger, school-age siblings, who were missing class to attend their brother's hearing.

Out of sight, out of mind

Many older truants have serious problems complicating and contributing to the school skipping.

A 13-year-old emotionally disturbed boy with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder appeared in juvenile court for chronic truancy March 15. His parents told Mulligan he was completely out of their control. A North Hills school official told the court the boy was making threatening and abusive remarks to teachers on the days he did arrive.

While North Hills pursued this case, some other districts give tacit approval to truancy.

Lynn Lasko with her daughter, Jennifer -- Only time will tell if the juvenile court intervention was what was needed to get Jennifer to stay in school. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Public Defender M. Susan Ruffner, who established a special program to deal with truancy while she was a juvenile court judge, said administrators at Westinghouse High School, where 20 percent of the students are absent on any given day, told her that they had a big job just to educate the students who wanted to be there. "How much resources were they willing to put into kids who did not want to be there and who were often disruptive when they were?" she asked.

Yon agreed that some districts prefer that truants stay away. "Kids who are truant also often have behavior issues. When they are out of sight, they are out of mind. When someone who acts up does not come to school, no one sends a search party."

Pat Crawford, spokeswoman for the Pittsburgh schools, said layoffs there meant no one was assigned solely to deal with truancy anymore. "A lot of people expect the school district to do everything. It is just not possible with the resources we have."

While many truants are trouble when they're in school, Jennifer was not. The district testified that she had no behavior problems and received detentions only for skipping school.

And she did well this winter when her mother pulled her out of Highlands and enrolled her in Orchard Hill Christian Academy in Apollo, where she was in a class of 11 and received lots of individual attention at her level, which is about third grade. She earned A's and B's.

Caseworkers in schools

That kind of success is what those concerned with truancy want for all school skippers, and they want it for a simple reason: Truancy often is a gateway to delinquency. In all that extra free time, many truants end up committing crimes.

"We do not want to create a class of undereducated people when we still have legal authority over them," Ruffner said. "When they are children, we must do our best to educate them. A person who is unskilled and does not graduate remains a threat to be underemployed or unemployed, turning to crime, lacking skills to support [himself or his] children."

That is what Lasko fears for her daughter -- that she will not get from school now the basic skills necessary to get a good job. If Jennifer is ordered to repeat seventh grade again, she would be 20 in 12th grade. Her mother doubts she will stick it out long enough to graduate.

Jennifer got to juvenile court through the Truancy Task Force, but the process took a long time.

Highlands began by filing a complaint with Natrona District Justice Carolyn Bengel when Jennifer was in seventh grade.

Bengel fined Jennifer and called her back several times to check on her. But Jennifer never paid the fine and continued skipping school. So Highlands called Yon's task force. Jennifer received one of the 159 letters the task force sent to truants this year warning them that CYF could get involved if they didn't start going to school.

Still Jennifer didn't go. She and her mother were hauled before an informal truancy task force tribunal at Shuman Juvenile Detention Center. That was in December. By then, she'd missed more than 60 days.

Yon warned her then that if she missed one more day, she would be referred to CYF, which could remove her from her mother. She skipped school again the next week.

And she missed another dozen days by the time CYF took the case to Mulligan three months later, on March 15.

By then, Lasko had withdrawn Jennifer from Highlands and enrolled her in the tiny Orchard Hill. Mulligan was satisfied with that as a potential solution to the problem, but told CYF caseworkers that they were to place Jennifer in a group home if she skipped another day.

Jennifer stayed at Orchard Hill for about a month. But her mother was having trouble paying the tuition and handling the 45-minute commute each way. After her car broke down, Lasko withdrew Jennifer from Orchard Hill and tried to re-enroll her at Highlands. The school sent Lasko away repeatedly because it wanted forms completed and staff was unavailable. On the fourth day, April 5, CYF seized Jennifer and put her in a group home.

In juvenile court Monday, Lasko told hearing officer Cynthia Franklin that Jennifer had attended Orchard Hill faithfully and explained her difficulty in getting the child re-enrolled at Highlands.

Franklin decided to let Jennifer go home and told CYF to send someone to the Lasko household to try to determine what prevents Jennifer from going to school and solve the problem. Franklin also warned Jennifer that if she skips again, the court may place her in a group home with an on-site school she'll have to attend.

Lasko hopes the person CYF sends to her home will be able to help her work with the school district. But she believes all this should have happened much sooner.

The juvenile court judges are unhappy with the delays as well. Clark suggested that more police departments follow the example of those in the Mon Valley that file for hearings in juvenile court themselves, instead of waiting for the schools, Truancy Task Force or district justices to act. Mulligan had five such cases in her courtroom Wednesday.

Tarentum Police Chief Dave Sieber said that if he'd known he could file himself, he would have done it for Jennifer and several other young teens whose parents routinely sought his officers' help on school mornings.

Clark also said placing caseworkers in schools would be ideal if CYF could afford it.

That solution was suggested by James E. Anderson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges Commission, who said some child welfare agencies across the state have assigned caseworkers to work in schools, similar to the school-based probation officers now stationed in 18 Allegheny County districts.

The probation officers make sure delinquents who are on probation go to school and behave there.

But because truancy is not a crime, the probation officers don't watch over truants who haven't been convicted of a criminal offense.

A few other counties have placed caseworkers in schools to deal with those youths, as well as children with other problems, Anderson said.

Once Jennifer got to court, the intervention seemed to work. After only three days in a group home with six significantly more worldly wise teen-agers, Jennifer swore she never wanted to go back. She went to school last week until Friday, when she stayed home sick with an ache in her side.

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