A pilot program under Oahu’s Family Court is quietly helping address a persistent attendance problem at one Leeward middle school by removing barriers for truant students while emphasizing the importance of a high school education.
Family Court Senior Judge R. Mark Browning last school year launched a specialized court to handle truancy cases out of Waianae Intermediate School, where average daily absences are more than double the state average.
The school, with 913 students in grades 7 and 8, had the highest chronic absenteeism rate last school year among middle schools at 38 percent, reflecting the percentage of students absent 15 days or more. The state average for middle schools was 14 percent that year.
Waianae Intermediate students on average missed 21 school days — amounting to more than four weeks of school — compared with the statewide average of nine absences.
Although statistics for this year aren’t finalized, the school believes the program is making a difference. For example, Waianae Intermediate Principal John Wataoka says he’s never had to sign so many perfect-attendance certificates and teachers have said their classes seem larger despite the same enrollment.
“We’re still far from where we want to be, so I can’t imagine not having this partnership,” Wataoka said of the truancy court program. “We’re looking to really transform not just the school but the community and their mindset as far as what school and education can ultimately do for their children’s futures.”
Browning consulted with his colleagues and area school leaders and floated the idea of establishing a specialized court to handle truancy cases.
“I wanted it to be a pilot project because I didn’t know whether it would work or not if we took a different approach. But I felt like we had nothing to lose,” he said. “And I wanted to do it on the west side because we live in this community, our courthouse lives in this community.”
Without additional resources or staffing, Browning assembled Truancy Court, adding to several specialty courts in Kapolei including Juvenile Drug Court and Girls Court, which focuses on female juvenile offenders. The goal is to raise awareness about truancy and increase attendance through early intervention services. Due to limited resources, the program currently works with just one school.
“I wanted to do this as early as possible because truancy is not just a crime but it’s part of a pattern in a family that if you don’t get kids back in school early on and teach them the value of an education, the later you enter the game, the easier it is to lose them,” Browning said.
The student body reflects the area’s socio-economic challenges: more than 78 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, a key indicator of poverty. Many of the students are homeless.
Surveys revealed the top three barriers to attendance were transportation, health issues and safety concerns.
Truancy is a juvenile offense that falls under the jurisdiction of the state’s Family Courts. Hawaii’s compulsory education law mandates, with few exceptions, that children between the ages of 5 and 18 attend a public or private school or be enrolled in an appropriate alternative educational program. Family Court has exclusive jurisdiction over children who are not attending school “whether through the child’s own misbehavior or nonattendance or otherwise.”
“Truancy has been a problem that has concerned me for a long time,” Browning, who’s been a full-time judge for nearly 20 years, said in a recent interview at the Ronald T.Y. Moon Judiciary Complex in Kapolei, where Oahu’s Family Court is based.
“One of the things about a truancy case is that it’s never just about truancy. People think when they hear the word truancy that we’re talking about a kid just not going to school and that’s it,” he said. “What we find, though, when these cases come to court is that these are very difficult cases, that they involve incredibly challenging issues for that family, whether it be issues of homelessness, issues of poverty, transportation, abuse, issues involving a myriad of different things.”
Given the complex nature of the juvenile cases, Browning said he found it especially worrisome that truancy cases were getting caught in red tape and not coming before a Family Court judge for several months, sometimes after most of the school year had already passed.
Public schools can file a court petition after 15 days of unexcused absences. The form is turned over to the Attorney General’s Office, which then files the petition with Family Court on behalf of the Department of Education, alleging a student violated the law.
“Hypothetically, if I have a child in front of me who has been absent significantly or all of the school year, and I get that case in March, what are we supposed to do? How have we helped that child if we’ve let almost a year go by?” Browning said. “And that’s what was happening.”
The court worked with Waianae Intermediate to come up with a process for flagging at-risk students who start accumulating absences. Once a student hits 10 unexcused absences, the student and his or her family are referred to Truancy Court for monitoring in hopes of improving attendance and avoiding charging the minor with a juvenile offense.
“The purpose of this court was not to punish but to present at least some sort of authority about getting the kid to school and also to have a court that was therapeutic in nature so that we could figure out what the issues were and what the problems were, and see about getting services into that household,” Browning said. “We wanted to have motivation from the home to continue with whatever we started with them in terms of building a foundation for education as part of their family structure.”
Family Court Judge Catherine Remigio, whom Browning assigned the task of helping launch the program, said she sees the negative impact that poor attendance can have on youth.
“As a line judge, every time I have to send a child to jail I look at their child record card and the first thing I usually see is truancy,” she said. “So this is an entry of activity for kids who are going to end up dropping out of high school and who end up being at risk for behaviors involving drugs, alcohol and violence. We don’t want them to get to that point.”
Remigio added that it’s costly to adjudicate such cases and incarcerate offenders. “It’s about $400,000 on the low end for each child that we don’t catch at that entry level and find out why it is that they’re not going to school,” she said.
She surveyed area schools and found that only a small fraction of truancy cases were making their way to court.
“What happens is because nothing’s being done, teachers become very apathetic, kids start persisting in their truancy and lose hope that anyone’s going to notice that they’re actually crying out for help,” Remigio said.
The Truancy Court program is a collaboration between Waianae Intermediate and the court. At the school level, two staffers have been dedicated as so-called truancy officers to monitor and work with students who miss school. Two court officers with the Person In Need of Supervision unit, or PINS — probation officers responsible for bringing juvenile cases to court — do weekly campus visits.
At the start of the 2015-16 school year, the first year of the pilot program, 147 Waianae Intermediate students were identified as “chronic truants,” having missed 10 days to more than 50 days of school the year before. The court estimated it could handle a maximum of 50 cases in its first year, so officials prioritized the list.
“We went for the hardest cases,” Remigio said.
A total of 68 students were referred to Truancy Court last year: 40 eighth-graders and 28 seventh-graders. “The majority had 60 to 90 absences,” Remigio said.
Of the 49 truancy petitions the state ended up filing for the group, 31 cases were diverted from court because the students demonstrated improvement. Eighteen of the cases were brought to court, and 16 of those students improved enough during their court visits to have their cases closed.
Officials don’t sit back and wait for students to hit the 10-day benchmark for court referral. Interventions such as calls home, parent conferences and home visits are triggered along the way.
Once cases do make their way to court, students and their families face Family Court Judge Lanson Kupau, who presides over Truancy Court. Kupau, who has family from the Waianae Coast, balances compassion with stern admonition for the kids who need it.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Kupau heard 17 truancy cases in various stages. (Although the cases by law are handled confidentially because they involve minors, Browning allowed the Honolulu Star-Advertiser to sit in on the proceedings.)
Kupau rewarded three students who posted nearly perfect attendances since their last court dates with gift cards for Jamba Juice, Subway and movie tickets. He counseled other students about the serious consequences of missing school.
“Waianae is a very special place to me, and I’m not going to just sit back and watch our kids fail,” Kupau told one family. “I don’t want you to go to school and get an education. I need you to go to school and get an education. And there’s two ways you can go about it. One way is the easy way, which is: Go to school and try your best — I’m not asking for perfection.”
“The other way,” he continued, “where you say, ‘I no like,’ … that’s the part that’s going get hard. I’m not going to let you just go ahead and waste your life and not get one education. That means that if I have to bring you back every single Friday until you turn 18 and get a diploma, then I’m OK with that.”
The judge warned several families that he can remove a child from their home for truancy.
“If I bring you under my jurisdiction, then going home is a privilege,” he told another family. “Because under the law, I can place you in a shelter. I can place you in a program that will make sure you’re in school every single day.”
For students struggling at home or in school, he offered help with tutoring, counseling, therapy and even talk-story sessions with him anytime.
“I need you guys to partner with me,” Kupau told another student’s parents. “I’m going to eliminate every single excuse he has.”