BROOKSVILLE — One day last month, an estranged couple came to Brooksville City Hall with their teenage son to explain why the boy wasn't showing up at school.
A committee composed of representatives from the school district, the Hernando Sheriff's Office, the State Attorney's Office and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice sat on the dais usually reserved for City Council members.
A school social worker laid out the case, and the parents had a chance to respond. By then, it was clear that the middle-schooler was caught between divorced guardians who blamed one another for failing to get him to school, recalled Lt. Cy Robinson, the Sheriff's Office committee member.
"It was kind of tough to watch," Robinson said. "They couldn't even stand at the same podium together."
In the end, the six-member committee opted to file a petition in Circuit Court to have a judge preside over the case. If the student's absences continue, the parents could be held in contempt of court.
The panel is part of a renewed effort to more efficiently tackle truancy in a county that has seen rates tick upward in recent years. The school district held similar truancy arbitration hearings in the 1990s. Now they're being revived, and last month's was the first.
The goal is to expedite cases that typically take months to resolve, said Jim Knight, director of student services for the school district and chairman of the truancy panel.
"I have a lot of frustration and so do my social workers," Knight said. "We're hoping by doing the (hearings), we'll get involved earlier and we'll get parents to understand it's serious."
A child who misses at least 15 days in any 90-day period is considered to be habitually truant. Statistics going back more than a couple of years weren't readily available. The district investigated 47 cases last school year, down from 60 the previous year, but Knight said truancy rates generally have shown an upward trend.
The district typically refers cases to Youth and Family Alternatives Inc., a contractor for the Department of Juvenile Justice that offers intervention services such as counseling to help families get children to school.
If that fails, the district can file a petition in Circuit Court, where a judge presides over the case and can fine noncompliant parents or order them to spend weekends in jail.
That can be a lengthy process, and such strong punishment has rarely been meted out, Knight said.
"We spend a lot of time getting kids through YFA and then to a judge, yet their attendance doesn't get better," he said. "When people don't feel there are consequences, things tend to get worse. That's what's happened to a large extent in our county, and that's why we started this back up."
Many truancy cases aren't eligible under the law for YFA services. They involve children younger than 10, or families with children between 10 and 17 who already have some kind of pending case with a state agency, such as the Department of Juvenile Justice or the Department of Children and Families.
Cases involving families ineligible for YFA services are primarily the ones the new truancy panel will hear. Instead of waiting until a student is absent 15 days out of 90, however, parents will be called to appear before the panel after 10 days.
"We're trying to catch them earlier and problem-solve to find out why the child is not in school," Knight said.
In addition to filing a Circuit Court petition, the panel has three main options after hearing a case.
One is to give families a last warning and monitor the student's attendance.
Another is for the State Attorney's Office to file criminal charges against the parents. The second-degree misdemeanor carries a sentence of up to 60 days in jail and a maximum fine of $500. That's exceedingly rare, though, said Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee, who also sits on the truancy committee.
Still another is to refer eligible families to YFA. Two staffers from the agency sit on the truancy panel. One of them is program manager Carolyn Kehr.
"What we find is school systems want to be more punitive because they have worked very hard before (a case) even gets to us," Kehr said. "We have a pretty good record, but it doesn't happen in 30 days."
There is a wide spectrum of reasons why students miss school, Kehr said. The younger the child, the more responsibility falls to the parent. Maybe the parents don't feel education is important, or maybe they're working 60 hours a week to provide the bare necessities to survive. Older students who are skipping school might be the target of bullies or suffer from mental health issues.
"If we haven't had a chance to work with families and they're eligible, we say, let us work with them," Kehr said.
The committee will certainly try to give eligible families the benefit of the doubt, members said.
"To gear up the criminal justice system and put someone in handcuffs, I would certainly use that as a last resort," Barbee said.
Knight agrees. But he notes that when cases in which a parent is fined or jailed hit the news, parents who had been ignoring the district's efforts to contact them about their child's truancy suddenly start calling.
Another powerful motivator for the students: School districts can notify the state Department of Motor Vehicles, which has the authority to prevent a habitually truant student from getting a driver's license.
In another case during the hearing last month, a single mother wasn't getting her daughter to elementary school. The mother was letting the girl stay up late during the week, even hosting sleepovers, members recalled.
The panel decided to give the mother time to get the girl's attendance record back on track.
"We told the mother there will be no more kids staying over during the week," said Robinson, the Sheriff's Office lieutenant.
There is a hope that parents and students who face a dais filled with authority figures will realize the gravity of the situation and take the initiative on their own, committee members said.
But that requires parents and students to be there.
On hearing day at Brooksville City Hall last month, only families involved in two of the four cases on the agenda showed up.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.