Truancy cases are tricky, says Oliver Mack, director of Project TARGET, Peoria County’s truancy prevention program.
“You don’t know how easy or hard they’re going to be until you start dealing with a student or his parents.”
Never has that been more true than in the case of 13-year-old Robert Bee Jr.
What began with a visit from a Tazewell County truant officer morphed into a missing child case involving Pekin Police Department’s detectives, a $1,000 reward for information leading to Bee, and a community confounded by how a child could seemingly disappear for what is now almost three weeks.
The boy ran away when the truant officer, or caseworker, and a police officer visited his home Nov. 17, according to police. His mother reported him missing the next day after authorities returned to serve her with ticket for violating the city’s truancy ordinance.
“In my nine years, this is the first time it’s gone this far,” says Leonard Ealey, assistant superintendent of Pekin Public Schools, referring to the Bee case. “This is the first time we’ve had a missing child.”
“Somebody has to know something,” says Mike Eeten, spokesman for Pekin’s Police Department. “That’s one of the reasons we put out the CrimeStoppers reward.”
Bee’s individual case is worrisome. But it also underscores more general problems and complexities of dealing with truancy, along with the varying methods different communities use to combat it.
Peoria County’s Project Target works only with students in kindergarten to eighth grades. Tazewell County’s program, which includes Woodford and Mason counties, works with students from kindergarten through high school. The city of Peoria no longer issues truancy tickets. Though it’s rare, the city of Pekin does.
Pekin’s police department issued eight truancy tickets so far this year, according to Eeten, compared to four for all of 2015. Tickets are $100 for the first offense, $200 for the second and a mandatory court appearance for the third.
Patrick Durley, superintendent of Mason, Tazewell and Woodford Counties Regional Office of Education, and his staff won’t talk about their role in the Bee case, other than to say they hope the child is found safe. But they will discuss their role when it comes to truancy.
“We don’t issue tickets. We’re purely the prevention and intervention side,” Durley says. “People think we’re punitive but our whole goal is to provide options to prevent truancy.”
In extreme cases, under Illinois law, cases can be referred to state’s attorney offices. Children or their parents can end up with stiff court-ordered penalties. Juveniles can be ordered to perform community service or fined up to $100 a day. Parents or guardians can be charged with educational neglect or a Class C misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in prison or a $500 fine. Cases where other issues are uncovered could be referred to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Service.
But that’s the extreme. As communities across the country move away from harsh zero-tolerance policies, they are also looking at comprehensive strategies to prevent truancy.
Chronic truancy is almost never just truancy, it’s usually a symptom of deeper family or personal problems, from unstable housing or illness to bullying or mental health issues, according to the people charged with dealing with the most problematic truancy cases in Peoria, Tazewell, Woodford and Mason Counties.
School districts monitor student attendance closely and take steps to ward off high absenteeism. School funding is based on average daily attendance but high absenteeism is often an early-warning sign of other problems that lead to academic difficulties and, potentially, dropping out of school. When school efforts fail, they can refer cases to truancy prevention teams based at regional offices of education.
At Peoria County Regional Office of Education, three caseworkers serve about 500 students a year. Two work exclusively with Peoria Public Schools students while Mack covers students in the county’s 17 remaining school districts.
In Mason, Tazewell and Woodford counties, where the regional office of education’s truancy-prevention staff is all new, Kerry Lapp and Jay Wallace split coverage of Tazewell County. Lapp also handles Woodford while Wallace covers Mason. Lapp currently works with about 60 students in her wide territory; Wallace has about 100.
Like Mack in Peoria County, Tazewell County officials emphasize only a small fraction of their cases meet the state definition of chronic truancy — students with nine or more unexcused absences in a school year.
Truant officers, or more accurately case managers, often end up acting as combination counselors, social workers and probation officers. (Lapp and Wallace both hold master’s degrees, Lapp in counseling and Wallace in administration of criminal justice and security.)
In most cases, an initial talk or visit with students or parents is enough to get attendance back on track. But sometimes it can take cajoling, either by phone or in person.
“Part of it is figuring out exactly what the problem is with that kid and their family,” says Lapp.
Sometimes, parents call for help.
Wallace, who has more high school students on his caseload than Lapp, sees first-hand how difficult it is to change long patterns of absenteeism among older students. At a certain age, it becomes easier to drop out than go to school, he says. He plans to organize special intervention groups at Pekin Community High School.
If a school refers a student to them for a third time, the regional office of education can set a special hearing. Like truancy tickets, the hearing is a last resort. Though they’re not formal court hearings, a Tazewell County judge will attend and talk to students and parents.
“That’s to reiterate the point that this is serious, we’re going to turn this over to the state’s attorney’s office,” says Tazewell’s Assistant Regional Superintendent Jeff Ekena, who conducts the hearings.