Court partners with St. John Schools to curb truancy

Published 12:00 am Saturday, June 12, 2021

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LAPLACE — The 40th Judicial District Court is partnering with the St. John the Baptist Parish School District to launch a new instructional initiative aimed at curbing truancy.

Division B Judge Nghana Lewis wants to underscore prevention rather than focusing solely on intervention after a student has exceeded the maximum number of absences or tardies. The initiative, called “Judge ‘Em Up,” will serve as one of several components to the school district’s Summer S.H.I.N.E. program. The initiative will continue into the next school year.

Lewis has seen truancy as a recurrent issue in the community throughout her legal career. After being elected to the 40th Judicial Court, she arranged a meeting with Superintendent Dr. Lynett Hookfin and Patricia Triche, director of early childhood education for St. John the Baptist Parish Schools.

“Rather than continuing to tackle this chronic problem from an intervention or post-violation positioning, I have been given the opportunity to partner in a way that emphasizes prevention,” she said. “We discussed what we could do to troubleshoot and to actually address the problem before it becomes a problem. We wanted to approach school attendance as a way to repurpose the role of the court in encouraging children to go to school and encouraging parents to get their children to school.”

As part of the Summer S.H.I.N.E. program, Lewis will be visiting various school sites to educate students on the laws surrounding truancy. According to Triche, these interactions will be a way for the court to connect with students in a positive and supportive manner.

Lewis plans to meet with students who have been identified as possibly at risk of becoming truant based off of past attendance records.

“I will meet with students and parents and walk them through the law in an easy to digest, non-confrontational, non-accusatory manner. We want to go beyond the basics of the law to actually discuss what can serve as possible barriers for parents and for students in terms of getting to school on time and regularly attending class,” Lewis said.

According to Lewis, barriers to school attendance might include issues with transportation, clothing or homelessness. Contributing factors may also involve a student not feeling like the school environment is safe, whether due to bullying or learning challenges that are not being addressed.

Truancy is defined under Louisiana law as a chronic record of unexcused absences and/or tardies. Louisiana students ages 7 to 18 can be judged truant if they have amassed five or more unexcused absences or tardies in a semester.

The law requires the school to send notice to the parent or guardian of an at-risk child prior to the student becoming truant. According to Lewis, the law also provides that the school can seek to remedy the truancy issue prior to that child and parent being called into court. Schools are expected to have a review board in place consisting of truancy officers and possibly a Families in Need of Services coordinator for the District. Lewis said schools are encouraged to troubleshoot the issues that are putting the child at risk of becoming truant.

If the parent continues to fail to bring their child to school on time after the board meeting, the parent and child must appear in court. The parent is then required to show cause for why he or she should not be held in contempt for causing the child to be truant.

Lewis said it is crucial that both students and parents understand the implications of accruing unexcused absences.

“For me, it’s not just about serving and meeting the duties and day-to-day responsibilities of a judge at the court house. A judge, as I see it, has a role to play in the community,” Lewis said. “One of the best ways to demonstrate that the court is a partner is to engage with young people in ways that are educational and supportive.”

Triche said the Summer S.H.I.N.E. program is a community-wide effort. In addition to the “Judge ‘Em Up” component with the 40th Judicial District Court, the summer program will also feature participation from the District Attorney’s Office, Parish President Jaclyn Hotard, the St. John Parish Sheriff’s Office, the St. John Parish Office of Fire Services, St. John United Way and the St. John Parish Library.

“It’s all of us together. It’s not one entity to trying to make a difference in the lives of our students; it’s everybody,” Triche said.