A survey of Band members regarding truancy in Mille Lacs Band communities shows a strong belief in the importance of education as well as support for a new response to the truancy epidemic in Mille Lacs Band communities.
In the 2017 State of the Judiciary, Chief Justice Rayna Churchill called for a coordinated response to provide programming, resources and legislation to address the issue.
A Truancy Task Force established in 2015 has been working on a new truancy statute for more than a year.
The Education Department has hired a parent liaison to work with families, and the Tribal Police have added a School Re- source Officer at Nay Ah Shing.
Despite those efforts, the problem persists.
The number of truant children has become a heavy burden to the schools, police department, family services, Office of Solicitor General and the Tribal Court. The Tribal Police Department reported that between September 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017, 696 truancy reports were filed with the Department.
Of all kids in the Nay Ah Shing and Pine Grove schools, 47 percent were deemed truant last year, including 20 out of 29 in high school, 12 out of 26 in middle school, and 52 out of 122 in elementary.
In Onamia and Isle, the numbers were slightly better, but still well above the state average.
The Office of the Solicitor General currently has 28 open cas- es with 42 children in truancy. In addition, 65 kids have truancy ICRs from Tribal Police that have not yet become truancy cases. Some of those cases involve more than one child.
The actual numbers are even higher, because some students are changing school enrollments and getting lost in the system.
The Band’s Truancy Response Team surveyed Band members on- line and at community meetings to assess the need for a new statute and determine the best course of action.
A total of 180 responses were received by the Office of the Solicitor General — more than half from those with custody of children. Seventy-three percent said regular attendance at school and achievement of a diploma were stressed while they were growing up.
An overwhelming number — 97 percent — said they believe the parent or guardian is responsible for making sure children attend school. Only three responses indicated it is the school’s responsibility.
Respondents were evenly divided on whether Band land should require all children up to age 18 to attend school, with no option for withdrawal.
Several options are being considered as ways the Court could encourage attendance, including community service, weekend homework with tutoring assistance, a truancy panel, referrals for educational resources, and participation with peacemakers or circle keepers. Each option was favored by 18 to 23 percent of respondents.
Forty-one percent of respondents think a penalty of $100 is sufficient to motivate parents or guardians to make sure children attend school; 59 percent said a larger fine is needed.
Under the current system, when a student is deemed habitually truant, a court case is started by filing a petition based on educational neglect under the Band’s Child/Family Protection statute, Title 8.
School attendance is also required in the Education statute, Title 9. However, with the exception of assessing a monetary fine the statute does not set forth a procedure or other consequences for addressing truancy. Instead, it directs “Upon the continuation of unexcused absences or upon failure of the parents or guardians to appear before the School Board, the School Board shall request that the appropriate Social Services agency file a civil complaint (Child Protection Petition) in a court of competent jurisdiction.”
Before a child protection petition is filed, to try and correct the problem the schools send letters and make phone calls to the family and hold meetings with those parents who cooperate. Tribal Police often visit the child’s place of residence, often more than once.
If a petition is filed, there is an initial hearing, followed by a review, pretrial and then a trial, followed by more review hearings until the child demonstrates a period of consistent attendance. Tribal Courts need to serve the parents or guardians with a copy of the petition and a summons to appear in court. Family Services is required to be involved and provide support for the family.
Seventy-two percent of survey respondents believe a new approach is needed to the process by which truancy cases are brought to court.
The proposed truancy ordinance uses a citation or ticketing method to alert, inform and fine parents or guardians when their child has reached “habitual truant” status. The current statute’s primary recourse is to impose a $100 fine for each violation.
As a general outline, the proposed citation process will give the parent the option to either pay the fine with no further action or, if the parent wants an opportunity to be heard and dispute the unexcused absence, the parent has the option to request a court hearing.
This option to pay the fine is the equivalent of a guilty plea, like paying a traffic ticket. If a third citation is issued, then the parent is required to attend a mandatory hearing. The parent can dispute that the child is continuing to be truant (with or without an attorney or witnesses) and if done so successfully, have the citation dismissed.
If the Court determines that reasonable grounds exist that the child is a continuing habitual truant, then the court can adopt the citation (rather than a petition) as the basis for continuing court intervention. Corrective measures can be to impose additional fines, order the parent and child to engage in certain services with Family Services, or require other actions to correct the problem.
The fines would also increase with each citation violation to act as an incentive to quickly take steps to correct the problem. The same process could happen for a fourth and subsequent unexcused absence.
A child who is 12 years of age or older may be held responsible for his or her own truancy as well. There is more to the statute than described here, but moving to the new process should encourage quicker corrective measures than under a child protection proceeding. When it comes to truancy, days matter, and a method to move more quickly is imperative to successfully reversing the detrimental pattern of habitual truancy.