Dropout Prevention Press Releases & Media

Truancy court would pay off for Monroe County – Herald-Times, August 4, 2008

Guest column
Truancy court would pay off for Monroe County
By Chris Gaal
August 4, 2008

This column was written by Monroe County Prosecutor Chris Gaal.

What could be done to reduce the number of repeat offenders cycling through our criminal justice system? Unfortunately, for a defendant facing a 15th arrest, there is very little chance that the criminal justice system can provide effective rehabilitation services or treatment that will reduce the risk of future criminal behavior. More likely, a firmly established pattern of criminal activity will continue until such a defendant is sentenced to the Department of Correction for a lengthy and expensive incarceration. A better approach would be to focus scarce community resources at an earlier stage through a proactive approach that seeks to prevent a pattern of criminal behavior from taking root in the first place.

There is no simple explanation for what causes criminal behavior. However, a common denominator is often educational failure that leads to dropping out of school. While a high school diploma does not automatically guarantee success, drop-outs will have little chance of economic self-sufficiency.

A growing body of research further indicates a clear link between the problem of truancy and a wide range of other social problems. Such problems become more severe as truancy becomes chronic and leads to dropping out of school. The long-term effects of truancy include the following:
Educational failure, social failure, substance abuse, low self-esteem, unwanted pregnancy, unemployment, low-paying jobs, poverty, reliance on public assistance, poor physical and/or mental health, delinquent behavior and/or violence, adult criminal behavior and/or incarceration.
As this list shows, the social costs of truancy not only harm the individual student, but also impose costs on the community and undermine public safety. Studies show that high school dropouts claim more in government-funded social services than graduates. Not surprisingly, communities with high rates of truancy are also likely to have corresponding rates of daytime criminal activity, property crimes and vandalism. However, research also indicates truancy reduction programs are inexpensive relative to the costs imposed by social problems associated with dropping out of school.

Recognizing that truancy and educational failure are too often at the root of a repeat offender’s inability to break the cycle of recidivism, jurisdictions around the country have developed the concept of “truancy courts.” Such programs are intended to provide a priority focus with consistent and timely sanctions in order to maintain students in the educational mainstream before truancy leads to failure. Experience has shown that effectively addressing truancy requires an understanding not only of the individual student, but also the family, school and community issues that factor into poor attendance. Truancy courts have been most effective when they have been part of a broad-based community truancy prevention effort — including the schools, the business community, social service organizations, law enforcement agencies, and the justice system.

An October 2006 issue of Business Network highlighted that the high school dropout rate for Monroe County is reportedly higher than the average for the state. This has caused concern about the adequacy of a skilled work force necessary to support future economic development. Our community has been fortunate in that the Monroe County Community School Corp., the Chamber of Commerce, the Franklin Initiative and Ivy Tech have focused on the issue and initiated various programs aimed at lowering the local dropout rate to below the state average by 2010.

Currently, the local schools refer students with excessive unexcused absences to the prosecutor’s office for “truancy” charges that are filed in juvenile court. The juvenile probation department then meets with students and their families to identify risk factors that may contribute to poor school attendance. Unfortunately, these cases often suffer from long delays, undermining the perception that there are genuine consequences for truancy, and in some cases, students drop out before their cases are resolved. So far, the local justice system has not initiated any comprehensive program aimed at prioritizing the problem of truancy in collaboration with other efforts in the community.

Based on the experience of model programs in other jurisdictions, Monroe County should initiate a “Truancy Court” designed to 1) expedite the time required to resolve a truancy referral, 2) enhance the perception of serious and immediate consequences for truant behavior, and 3) emphasize the issue of truancy as a community priority. While the effect on reducing crime, increasing public safety and saving resources may not be felt until later, it is important we begin to act now to reach those goals.

“Live Better” Campaign Timed To Coincide With New Truancy Court – March 6, 2009

For Immediate Release
March 6, 2009

Contact: Chris Gaal, Office of the Monroe County Prosecuting Attorney, 349-2670

“We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation . . . . This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know that the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow . . . . Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself – it’s quitting on your country. And this country needs and values the talents of every American.”
President Barack Obama, February 24, 2009, Address to Joint Session of Congress

“Live Better” Campaign Timed To Coincide With New Truancy Court

A new public education campaign will raise community awareness about the importance of high school attendance and graduation. This effort is timed to support the launch of the new Truancy Court in the Monroe County Circuit Court, Juvenile Division, and also coincides with President Obama’s recent call to reduce high school dropout rates in our country. Under the new Truancy Court schools can refer students with a pattern of unexcused absences to the program in an effort to promote greater educational success, and avoid the many problems associated with dropping out.

The education campaign targets students with a colorful locally-designed poster urging them to “Live Better, Earn More, Stay Healthier, Go Further, Be Happier.” The logo features a classroom with an arrow pointing to an empty desk with the message “Be There! Graduate For A Better Life.”

“We wanted to send a positive message explaining the many benefits of high school graduation and demonstrating broad community support for truancy prevention efforts including the new court,” said campaign organizer and Monroe County Prosecuting Attorney Chris Gaal.

Gaal proposed the creation of a truancy court upon taking office in 2007, and has worked with Juvenile Court Judge Steve Galvin to make it a reality. According to Gaal, research demonstrates how poor attendance leads to dropping out of school, and is linked to a wide range of social problems such as substance abuse, poverty, reliance on public assistance, poor physical and mental health, delinquent behavior, violence, adult criminal behavior and incarceration.

Mayor Mark Kruzan also welcomes the “Live Better” campaign, stating “One of the most important things we can do to break the pattern of repeat offenders cycling through our criminal justice system is to focus scarce resources on truancy prevention, and other efforts to boost graduation rates, where they can make the biggest difference.”

The “Live Better” campaign is cosponsored by twenty-one local organizations including representatives from the justice system, law enforcement, schools, the business community, social service and government agencies, and other groups serving at-risk youth. Sponsors include Big Brothers Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Clubs, Commission on the Status of Black Males, Girls Incorporated, Department of Child Services, Ivy Tech, Middle Way House, CASA, Rhino’s Youth Center, and Stepping Stones.

Matt Wysocki, Executive Director of the Chamber of Commerce Franklin Initiative enthusiastically supports the education campaign, and hopes it will help students understand the benefits of completing their degree; “High school graduates usually get better jobs and earn more money than dropouts. They also tend to be healthier, live longer, contribute more to their communities, and are happier.” Citing a figure from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the poster states the average high school graduate will earn $364,080 more than a dropout over their lifetime.

Members of the community-based coalition plan to continue their efforts to prevent truancy and boost local graduation rates. The Chamber of Commerce’s Franklin Initiative plans to host a drop-out prevention summit later in the semester. “We hope a community forum will further a discussion about how we can better coordinate resources offering services to at-risk youth in our community to reduce the drop-out rate,” says Matt Wysocki.

“If you think success is difficult, try the high cost of failure,” the poster urges students. “Don’t let yourself get left behind.” The poster will be displayed at schools, social service agencies, youth service providers, and other public buildings around the community. Copies may be obtained from the Office of the Monroe County Prosecuting Attorney by calling 349-2670.

Many in community focused on keeping teens from dropping out – Herald-Times, April 1, 2009

Many in community focused on keeping teens from dropping out
By Chris Gaal, Mark Kruzan, Tim Hyland, Steve Kain and Matt Wysocki
April 1, 2009

The following guest column was submitted by Chris Gaal, Monroe County prosecutor; Mark Kruzan, mayor of Bloomington; Tim Hyland, interim superintendent of the Monroe County Community School Corp.; Steve Kain, superintendent of the Richland-Bean Blossom School Corp.; and Matt Wysocki of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce Franklin Initiative.

For the last several years, a number of groups in the community have been working to reduce the high school dropout rate in Monroe County. This issue is not only key to the future success of our children, but also important to the economic vitality and public safety of our community.
It’s time to rededicate ourselves to this task, broaden our efforts and find new ways of working together to build a local movement for educational success.

President Obama recently issued a call to action on this issue in his February address to Congress: “We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. … This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know that the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. … Dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself — it’s quitting on your country. And this country needs and values the talents of every American.”

The good news is that there is a lot already happening right here in our community, on many different fronts. For instance, the Chamber of Commerce’s Franklin Initiative sponsors a “Stay in School Partnership” with both local school districts to provide individualized counseling and career preparation for struggling students.

Monroe County recently started a new “Truancy Court” as a partnership between the local juvenile justice system and the schools.

The program is designed to help students and families address problems underlying habitual truancy and establish a pattern of successful school attendance.

The prosecutor’s office recently organized a public education effort involving 21 local co-sponsors to raise awareness of the many benefits associated with high school graduation and to demonstrate broad community support for dropout prevention and the new truancy court. The campaign’s colorful poster urges students to “Live Better, Earn More, Stay Healthier, Go Further, Be Happier — Graduate for a Better Life.”

These are just a few of the many creative dropout prevention efforts currently under way in our community.

Thankfully, we have already seen a modest increase in local graduation rates, as reported in a Herald-Times editorial on Jan. 21. Graduation rates have recently increased from 82.2 to 84.2 percent at Edgewood High School, 79.2 to 81.2 percent at Bloomington High School North and 80.2 to 83.2 percent at BHS South. The challenge now before us is to learn from each other how we can better coordinate our resources and work together more effectively to continue this improvement.
To build this movement we have organized a “Dropout Prevention Summit” on Tuesday, April 7, from 3-5 p.m. at the Bloomington City Council Chambers in City Hall, in the Showers Building.
The purpose of this community forum is to provide networking opportunities for Monroe County programs that offer services or resources for high school students identified as being at-risk of not graduating.

Representatives from diverse sectors of the community including the schools, business, justice, health, social service agencies and government will be invited to provide a brief presentation about their organization and programs for at-risk students. These presentations will be followed by a panel discussion and a resource fair aimed at exploring how we can better coordinate our efforts. School officials from both local school districts will be on hand to provide information about school-based programs.

We invite you to join with us in making drop-out prevention a priority for our community.

Chris Gaal Addresses the Dropout Prevention Coalition – April 29, 2010

Reflections on Dropping Out – August 5, 2011

The High School Plus Coalition produced a video entitled “Reflections on Dropping Out” featuring local teenagers who had recently dropped out of high school. These videotaped interviews, conducted in 2010, provided an up-close view of real local teens talking about why they left school, what life was like after they dropped out, what they now needed to succeed academically, and how we could help kids stay in school.

Poverty, illness, other factors lead to truancy – Herald-Times, October 14, 2014

Three months into the 2014-15 school year at Monroe County Community School Corp., six students have missed at least 10 days of school without an excuse. They have been referred to juvenile probation for truancy.

During the 2013-14 school year, a total of 63 students were referred to juvenile probation for truancy, and 21 had their driver’s licenses suspended for unexcused absences.

Overall, attendance rates for both MCCSC and Richland-Bean Blossom Community School Corp. have remained above 95 percent for the past five years, but for students who fall through the cracks, attendance can have a long-term effect on academic performance and the likelihood that they’ll finish school. Beyond graduation, students who have a history of struggling with truancy could be on a course for trouble in adulthood.

According to Monroe County Prosecutor Chris Gaal, poor attendance leads to dropping out of school, and those who don’t finish are more likely to combat substance abuse, poverty, poor physical and mental health, and even criminal behavior that results in incarceration. When looking at criminal records, one common denominator with many who are incarcerated is a history of truancy, Gaal said.

“Dropping out is expensive for the community. It makes a lot of sense to focus on truancy prevention and increasing high school graduation rates,” he said.

Why are kids truant?

The causes of truancy are wide-ranging and depend on the student’s age and their family’s situation.

“What we’ve learned over the last several years is it really is not going to school that’s the problem, it’s more the symptom,” said Christine McAfee, juvenile probation supervisor in the Monroe County Circuit Court’s Probation Department.

Kids don’t come to school due to a variety of reasons, including homelessness, poverty, mental and physical illness, or even because they need to babysit their younger siblings while their parents are at work.

For younger kids, the reason for absence can fall on parents who must make sure their children get to school. For a child whose parents are off to work before the bus arrives, it’s easy to fall back to sleep and miss the ride to school.

Becky Rose, director of social work at MCCSC, said she’s seen an increase in older students avoiding school because of anxiety due to academic pressures or peer relationships. They might be struggling academically and start to feel disconnected from school, so they don’t show up to class.

“It’s frustrating when you’re struggling and you feel like people are passing you up,” Rose said.

What can be done?

From McAfee’s point of view, there’s no easy answer, but getting dialed in to a kid who is struggling with attendance early on, before they are in middle school, is one way to prevent habitual truancy.

“When they’re enrolled in kindergarten and not attending regularly, that’s a red flag,” she said.

Community resources that aren’t punitive can help kids and their families. For instance, connecting families struggling with poverty to the Circles Initiative through the South Central Community Action Program could aid them in breaking the cycle of poverty. Getting kids involved in Big Brothers Big Sisters might give a child a chance to avoid a future of truancy.

“Matching kids with (a Big Brother or Sister), that can be somebody in their corner, and model different behavior,” McAfee said.

If interventions don’t happen when they’re young, a routine of truancy can follow students into middle and high school.
“As soon as we know there’s a trend or a pattern, we jump on that and try to find out why,” Rose said.

MCCSC’s social workers use a variety of strategies to identify the problem and get kids back to class. As soon as a student misses five days, either excused or unexcused, a letter is sent home. That documentation to parents sometimes corrects the problem.

In other cases, it doesn’t. Rather than sending another letter, social workers start knocking on doors to talk with kids and their parents at home about why attendance has become a problem. They also educate kids and their families about the importance of being at school.

Sometimes the solution is finding someone in the school the student can connect with. A social worker or teacher might become an informal mentor for a student, someone who will check on them, offer positive reinforcement and take notice of when the student is doing well.

“In bigger schools, it’s easy for kids to feel they are just one of many,” Rose said.

What are the consequences?

Each year, MCCSC social workers keep track of student attendance and try to intervene with parents to get kids to school, but after 10 unexcused absences, the consequences are a juvenile probation referral or a suspended driver’s license for 120 days. Truant teens who haven’t yet received a learner’s permit will not be able to get it when they stop by the Bureau of Motor Vehicles.

The process for those referred to the county’s juvenile probation department depends on their situation. Once they are referred, Rich Hanson, the deputy prosecutor assigned to the juvenile court in Monroe County, steps in.

Hanson, along with a probation intake team, will review what the school has done to remedy the truancy and determine what intervention is needed. Parents and students will meet with probation officials. At this point, some students will go no further, because it’s determined that the cause of the student’s truancy is due to an unmet need that could be helped through a community agency or social service.

Other students who admit to truancy will have an informal adjustment and undergo a program similar to probation. The rest of those referred will go on to a rehabilitative truancy court, which could end in a formal charge of truancy.

Truancy court is similar to what adults experience. The child receives a summons; they come to court before Judge Stephen Galvin, and they have a right to counsel. In the end, they may be placed on probation. The process can last from two weeks to a month or more.

Does it work?

It’s not easy to know if going through the entire process of truancy court and probation works, Hanson said. For some students, it gets their attention, and they change their behavior or they get the support they need.

“We do a very good job of getting the children back into school, but we are only one small portion of a much greater puzzle,” he said.

Once the trial is over, a student often benefits from community programs and organizations. For instance, the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce’s Franklin Initiative matches students with graduation coaches who help them stay in school and reach graduation. Between 200 and 220 high school students from Bloomington High Schools South and North and Edgewood High School are in the program each year, and they meet with a case worker at least once a week. Many of those in the program struggle with attendance, and in the 2013-14 school year, 97 percent of those with a coach either graduated or moved on to the next grade.

Such programs and school interventions help, but ultimately, parental engagement makes the biggest difference, Hanson said.

“Parents need to reinforce what we say,” he said.

When the probation department, schools, community organizations and parents come together in a broad-based approach, the results are better. Does it help every single child? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

“One kid is worth saving,” Hanson said. “Whatever we can do is worth it.”

Roadmap to Success website launched by the The High School Plus Coalition of Monroe County – October, 2015

For students, parents, and counselors, an innovative new tool to help guide career and school choices is now available. The interactive Roadmap to Success website will help users in Monroe County navigate resources that increase high school success and completion, as well as encourage college and career readiness. The Roadmap to Success (http://Monroe.RoadmapToSuccess.org) guides users to information about workforce, colleges and training programs, ways to pay and save for education after high school, and much more.

Containing up-to-date national and local resources, the Roadmap tailors them to suit the needs of each user. The Roadmap begins by asking whether the user is a student, parent/guardian, service organization, educator, or community member or business. The questions continue to build on one another until the user is presented with a personalized resource page that contains relevant local and national information that they may view and email to themselves or others. “All teenagers need a plan for their future. The Roadmap to Success allows teens to find resources that suit their individual plan – no matter if their plan includes career and technical education, college, the workforce, or service,” said Jamie Kuzemka, United Way Community Initiatives Director.

The motivation to create the Roadmap to Success website came from the need for a centralized access point for education and career related resources. High School Plus Coalition members realized that while there are many national and local resources available to Monroe County middle school and high school students, the county lacked a central way for people to access all of these resources in a user-friendly way.

During the October 13 launch, High School Plus Coalition members tested out the site and ran through possible scenarios of people seeking guidance. During the kick-off event hosted by Ivy Tech, Coalition members were given ID cards with information about a hypothetical student, parent, or community member; from there, they answered the questions presented by the Roadmap to create a tailored resource list.

According to Barry Lessow, United Way of Monroe County Executive Director, “Having a purposeful plan will make a significant difference in a student’s ability to select a career based on their interests and real opportunities, and to take productive steps toward fulfilling their personal and professional goals.  Knowing what routes will take you to your destination, and how to find the best on-ramp, are now easier because of this Roadmap. We were thrilled to develop this project in cooperation with RBB, MCCSC, IU, Ivy Tech, and other educators, youth organizations leaders, and workforce specialists.”

The Roadmap was developed using input from a High School Plus Coalition summit and the Coalition Steering Committee. The project is managed by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Monroe County, which also provided funding.

The High School Plus Coalition, coordinated by the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce and United Way of Monroe County, strives to prepare all students to grow, graduate, and pursue their goals by creating a purposeful plan for the future. The Coalition was created in 2012 and is comprised of educators, guidance counselors and community members. Whether a student is college-bound or wants to enter the workforce, the High School Plus Coalition recognizes the necessity of everyone having both a high school diploma + a purposeful plan for their future. More information can be found at www.highschoolpluscoalition.org.