Like many other school districts nationwide, Pinellas County has a serious problem with truancy. Since 2002, Circuit Judge Irene Sullivan, who presides in the Unified Family Court, has handled the county's truancy court, which she renamed "education court." Her goal is to encourage kids to graduate from high school or to at least get a GED. I interviewed Sullivan after visiting her courtroom recently.
When you see these truant kids in front of you, what do you feel?
I care about the kids, as do all the truancy partners (Family Resources, the Pinellas County School Board and P.A.R., the drug prevention agency). I feel sad, frustrated and helpless, and proud of our work. I feel sad because school should be fun, exciting, filled with friends and activities, as well as the educational experience that these kids are missing. We know that without a high school education, there's little chance of success as adults.
What are some of the immediate consequences you've seen when kids drop out?
Young men will often turn to crime and young women to dependent relationships, unable to support themselves or their children, often victims of domestic violence.
Do you have the power to detain the kids in some way, even for their own good?
We have little leverage in truancy court. We can't put truants in detention — nor should we, I believe. We are offering a free public education, which many just reject. Whenever there is leverage, such as in a fundamental school, a magnet program, a private school or one like Academy Prep, we have zero attendance problems.
In other words, a school or program that the parents and kids choose and want to be in, we have zero attendance problems. We make education issues seem so complicated, and they really aren't if you boil it down to good teachers and parental involvement.
What is your opinion of out-of-school suspensions?
Out-of-school suspension is a policy I abhor. It is absurd for me to order kids to school and have the school order them not to come. Nationally, this is not considered good practice. Our goal is to be nonadversarial, to get to the root of the truancy problem.
We encourage not just attendance but attachment and engagement. It makes me proud when kids begin the difficult task of attending every day on their own and then get attached to a club, a sport, a teacher. Kids are resilient and wonderful in their abilities to do a quick turnaround.
On average, how many children do you see during an academic year and what's the average age?
We see about 200 kids a year, as often as we need to. We hold court about twice a month. The average age is 14, some younger, some older, mostly the end of middle school or the first year of high school. That's the critical time. I know that three or six days don't sound like much, but these are the kids who keep that rate all year. By the end, they give up, with 60 to 100 absences.
When I was in your court the other day and witnessed just six cases, three of the girls were pregnant. One girl was 14, one was 15 and one was 16. What's the percentage of pregnant girls?
In truancy court, I'd say 5 percent of the girls are pregnant. The morning sickness is their excuse for truancy.
In the courtroom, I kept hearing the term "graduation" from court. Explain graduation in truancy court. What's the average time it takes for a kid to graduate?
Graduation occurs whenever a kid starts attending regularly, gets engaged in school, and we feel we can give that child "wings" to do without us and continue the good job of improved attendance on their own. It's spontaneous and comes from the recommendations of the people in court and the parents.
Are there some kids you just can't help? How many do you lose?
There are some we can't help. Those who get delinquency charges and are then seen in delinquency court, with the sanction of detention time for truancy, and those who just can't make it in a school setting for mental health reasons, and so on. I wish we didn't have any failures, but I imagine we run about 20 percent.
Have you ever had to jail parents for not trying hard enough to keep their kids in school?
The state attorney, Barbara Jacobs, prosecutes parents for not using best efforts to get their child to school. She focuses on the parents of elementary students because that is usually a parent problem. Most kids that age want to be in school. Those are handled as criminal misdemeanors and I don't see them.
If you had one wish to get truants back in school, what would it be?
I wish that we could mobilize the community to watch out for truants, kids out of school on school days, particularly the younger ones, and call the police for help. Communities that have done this, such as Jacksonville, Florida, and Brooklyn, N.Y., have been successful and have also found many missing, exploited, abandoned and abused kids.
Truancy really matters. It is a front-end intervention that works because if a kid can be successful in school, he can be successful in life, no matter what other problems he faces. Truancy is the tip of the iceberg of serious problems involving drug abuse, untreated mental illness, isolation, poverty and antisocial behavior. Truancy begins in elementary school, escalates in middle school and leads to dropouts and defeats in high school.