The juvenile court system is teaming up with the McDuffie County school system to nip truancy in the bud. Toombs Judicial Circuit Juvenile Court Judge Brett Hammond met with all the local elementary principals, School Superintendent Mark Petersen, Assistant Superintendent Barry O'Neill and central office administrators last Wednesday at the central office to discuss a new program to stop truancy. Other juvenile court officials and social agencies also attended the meeting.
Judge Hammond talked about a program already in place, called F.A.S.T. S.T.A.R.T. (Finding Alternatives for Safety and Treatment Stabilization Through Assessment and Recommendations for Treatment) that uses service providers in the community to evaluate and eliminate causes of delinquency. The program is geared toward families that have been through the juvenile court system.
Through F.A.S.T. S.T.A.R.T., Judge Hammond said he has learned the problems need to be addressed sooner.
"What we have found is that children coming into the juvenile court have been having problems since elementary school, but we don't hear about them until they are 11 or 12-years-old," the judge said. "So my idea is to back the process up and look into the elementary schools."
Judge Hammond said research has shown that children who are delinquent in school in the early years many times come from a home environment with neglect and abuse involved.
"So, we have to get a program to address the neglect and abuse," he said. "And (elementary principals) can identify who those students are because y'all are on the front line seeing them every day and know their situations."
Under the new program for younger grades, which may be called either Parent University or Truancy Intervention Project (TIP), the elementary principals will recommend a student to the juvenile court, which will become the legal mechanism for the court to provide assistance to the families. Based on a similar program in Baldwin County, the judge's idea is to hold a series of training courses for the parents of children who are recommended to the program. The courses will teach the importance of education, computer skills, parenting skills, website monitoring, and explain school procedures.
"Our vision is to give these parents the tools to have what it takes to raise better children," Judge Hammond said.
Dearing Elementary Principal Laura Hughes said she "loved this idea," because the children's problems are a family problem, but she questioned whether the parents would actually attend the courses.
"You will have to file a neglect complaint with the juvenile system, and then we say they have to go," Judge Hammond explained. "I can tell you this, more times than not, the parents and children are screaming for help. And that's what this is -- a support system, not a punishment."
Dr. O'Neill asked the court officials if a mentoring program also would help. The assistant superintendent said he had just met with the Executive Director of Partners For Success and learned of the mentoring services they offer. The judge wholeheartedly accepted the suggestion.
"We desperately need citizen volunteers," he said. "I don't think it's that people won't do it, but that we haven't done a good enough job of getting the need out to them and bringing them in. We don't require them to come every time, but just when they can. This gives them the opportunity to bring whatever their training is and put it to good use helping the system."
Judge Hammond said a one-time grant is available to get the program started, but he needs the school system to provide a location with a computer lab and the referrals.
"We are going to do anything to help these boys and girls, and we'll do whatever it takes," Dr. Petersen said.
It was decided at the meeting that court officials will continue to meet with the school officials on a monthly basis to address the truancy problem. The Toombs Judicial Circuit includes McDuffie, Warren, Glascock, Taliaferro, Wilkes and Lincoln Counties. Colleen LeRoy, the F.A.S.T. S.T.A.R.T. administrator, said McDuffie County will serve as a pilot for implementing the program in the other counties.