By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
About 50 people — including two elected officials who spoke, two county education officials, several parents of county school students and others — gathered in Escambia County High School’s auditorium Monday, October 16, for a symposium on truancy, the problem of students staying away from school without a valid reason.
The gathering was organized and headed up by Dr. Eric Andrews, who serves as Attendance and Counselor Supervisor for the county school system. Andrews addressed the problem of absenteeism and some possible solutions to that problem, considered one of the biggest — if not the biggest — obstacle to gaining a quality education.
“This is why we’re here,” Andrews said. “From 2021 to 2022, the numbers (of absentees) for some schools went up. Mental health, wellness, at-risk, dropouts, poverty, dysfunctional family issues, substance abuse — all these variables tie into these percentages as to why your child was out of school. This is what the research shows.”
All four Atmore-area schools showed an increase from one year to the next. Escambia County Middle School’s increase was highest, rising from 16 percent to 35 percent, while Huxford Elementary’s absenteeism rose from 14 percent to 24 percent, and both Escambia County High School (ECHS) and Rachel Patterson Elementary School (RPES) showed an increase of 6 percent. (ECHS, from 23 to 29 percent; RPES, from 18 to 24 percent.)”
“If a child misses 2-4 days in the first 20 days, it is almost a guarantee that child will miss three times as many days before we go home for Christmas,” Andrews said. “That means the child will be chronically absent or at risk of being chronically absent. If a student misses 18 days, he or she is considered to be chronically absent.”
He pointed out that even if a child’s chronic unexcused absence becomes a matter for the courts, the school is still penalized.
“The juvenile court deals with unexcused absences,” he said, urging parents to seek help if they are facing such a problem. “But when the state looks at our data, they look at 18 missed days of school, whether it’s excused or unexcused. We’re here to help you if you need our help. I appeal to you, if you need our help, if you are facing such issues, please communicate with your child’s school.”
While Andrews pointed out some of the social ramifications of failure to attend school — teen pregnancy, involvement in criminal activity or just being unable to cope with the adult world — Juvenile Court Judge Eric Coale and District Attorney Steve Billy talked about the legal ramifications.
Those in attendance paid close attention as Coale, who is also the county’s District Court Judge, explained the law on truancy.
“Juvenile court is a court of correction, not a court of punishment,” he said. “But if it gets to a point, I will punish. I have directed the DA’s office, if the charge is warranted, to charge adults with contributing to the delinquency of a minor under the truancy statutes.”
He explained that a parent could be held criminally responsible for his or her child’s continued absenteeism, pointing out that each could face a Class A misdemeanor charge that could result in a $100 fine and 90 days of hard labor.
“I’m not trying to scare you, I’m just trying to tell you the facts,” he said. “I’ve not had to put anybody in jail yet, and I don’t want to, but I have one (a parent) now who is probably going to get a taste of it. If a child is between the age of 6 and 17 years, that child must be in school. This ain’t fun for us; this is serious business.”
The district attorney agreed that going so far as to jail parents of truant children is not the aim of his office.
“Enforcing these laws is not pleasant, but it’s necessary,” he said. “Whether parents care about a child or not, these school officials do. If you give a child too much free time, that child is going to occupy their time with something. If they are in school, they are interacting with other children and teachers and they are subject to rules and regulations, things they have to learn to do when they get into society.”
He said the bottom line is that parents and guardians have a duty to raise their child or children and pointed out that the law gives officials the power to make the parent attend school with the child.
Coleman Wallace, who holds the District 7 seat on the county school board, was the last to speak. He appealed to parents to help the school help the students.
“Our schools need help because they depend on the public to be able to function and serve the calling they have been established for,” he said. “We need you as parents to be strong, to be forceful, yet at the same time to be gentle. If you can teach your child to do the right thing every day, the world in which they move will be changed because they, too, will understand the value of knowledge as well as the power of knowledge.
“The plea is for you to let us know when you need help. Please help us as we try to help you and this community grow, serve and improve from the ground up.”
Wallace and Sherry Digmon, the school board’s District 6 rep, were the only elected officials in attendance, except for Coale, Billy and Amy Johns of Poarch Creek Indians.