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Winona County’s truancy court tweaks operations for students

March 18, 2019
Judge Mary Leahy prepares for the start of her truancy court cases at Winona Senior High School in Winona, Minn. (Chuck Miller/The Winona Daily News via AP)

WINONA, Minn. (AP) — A tweak to how Winona County’s truancy court operates has ended a practice that once required students to miss two or three hours of class time to attend a court hearing.

Under the direction of Judge Mary Leahy, who handles juvenile matters, the hearings now take place at Winona Senior High School and the Area Learning Center. It’s a change that might seem small, but one that has cut down time out of class to address missing class.

“I always thought it was ridiculous to take the kid out of school and stick them at the courthouse for probably the better part of the afternoon or morning,” Leahy said to the Winona Daily News. “It seemed kind of dumb.”

A habitually truant student under Minnesota statute is a student with seven unexcused absences in a given school year. Winona public schools make a handful of attempts to correct the behavior, including a letter or phone call to parents, meeting with the student and family and setting the student up with the county’s Restorative Justice truancy conferencing, explained WSHS assistant principal Chai Lee.

But if all else fails, the school files truancy paperwork, calling the student and family to court. And before this school year, it meant that students, parents, teachers and administrators would sit through an hours-long juvenile court calendar before the student’s own hearing.

“We’re used to the processes here. They’re not,” Leahy said. “So it was a big ask to have these people take that much time away from school and away from work to address (it).”

Now, the judge and her staff, including law enforcement, show up to the high school and the ALC a few times throughout the year. They host court in a designated classroom, so a student need only walk down the hall, attend their 15-minute hearing and return to class.

Besides saving time and resources, Lee said court at the high school has other benefits.

“It makes noise. The school community knows that we’re serious about this issue,” he said. “Even though we don’t tell anyone, ‘Oh, the court’s in here,’ they know. Kids know, all around, everybody talks about it.”

Though it’s certainly serious, it’s also rather rare for it to reach the court level. Lee said just three students have attended truancy court at the high school this year, and only three last year, and each student has worked the issue out before more serious consequences need to be invoked.

Leahy also implemented a change to what the school specifically defines as truant, as she said they used to spend hours filing paperwork for students who were always late to class — which is a different matter, one that has to be handled by school officials themselves.

“We were getting just blasted,” she said. ”(Filings) would come in and just reading over these reports, it’s like, well, they’re habitually late for everything, but they’re in school. There’s no way for me to fix that.”

Because the prior meetings and restorative justice circles typically filter out cases where students have a genuine problem making it to school, like an illness or a tough situation at home out of their control, Leahy said she mostly sees students who either are simply oversleeping or are facing academic challenges that cause them to avoid class.

After talking through a solution in the hearing, students are assigned community service — which is more than likely to be cleaning the school, Lee said — that they can work off by attending class. The rehabilitative rather than punitive nature of the consequence is intentional to how juvenile court operates.

But Leahy said a missing link she’d like to fill is providing a tutoring service so students with those academic challenges can get the help they need directly from truancy court and work off community service hours by attending tutoring, too. The logistics of that are tough and have yet to be ironed out, she said.

“I know how they feel. I’ve been on the other end of the F,” she said. “You just want to figure out a way to catch them before they fall.”

This year, the judge also reviews cases 60 days after the student appears in court. There’s always been a review process to see whether things are going well, Leahy said, but the court was typically kept out of it unless the review was a bad one. The new approach allows her to be the first to congratulate a student who’s going to class, she said.

Those follow-ups also happen for ALC students, which ALC principal Emily Cassellius said has been beneficial.

“If there is an improvement and those students get positives for turning things around, that’s very important,” Cassellius said.

Of the 11 counties in Minnesota’s third judicial district, only Olmsted, Steele and Winona have a dedicated truancy court. It’s a unique relationship between the judge and the students, Leahy said, and Winona’s new spin on it gives her a chance to meet them where they’re at: in the classroom.

“We don’t want them coming to the courthouse,” she said. “We don’t like having kids at the courthouse — unless they’re here for something fun.”

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Information from: Winona Daily News, http://www.winonadailynews.com

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