By MARGARET REIST
LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR
LINCOLN, Neb. — Every two weeks, the Park Middle School multipurpose room becomes a courtroom complete with judicial bench and judge, attorneys and defendants — and their parents.
Alissa Harrison, an eighth-grader who loves photography but until recently did not love school, showed up like clockwork twice a month last semester — a defendant working to change her ways.
She thinks she has, with the help of the mock courtroom and all those who took the time to make it happen: the judge and the attorneys, the counselor and therapist and principal.
“It changed me a lot,” she said. “The people there are so nice and they’re encouraging.”
And they all are convinced that the word truancy is a harbinger of trouble; that school absences gather speed, compound upon themselves like proverbial snowballs until they morph into words such as flunking and dropout.
It’s why the judge, attorneys and school officials decided to try something different: giving students who habitually skip class an alternative to juvenile court.
A $300,000 grant from the Nebraska Crime Commission funded the pilot program at Park Middle School. The philosophy is similar to drug courts in that it uses the threat of going to court to motivate participants to get at the root of the problem and change their behavior.
It works like this: A juvenile court petition alleging habitual truancy is filed against participating students but is dismissed — and the record sealed — when students complete the program. Those who don’t, go to court.
A therapist works with students and their families, and a school social worker helps with school-related problems and keeps tabs on grades and homework. Every other week, the students and their parents go to “court” in the multipurpose room, with Juvenile Court Judge Reggie Ryder presiding or Principal Ryan Zabawa on the bench.
The judge reviews how students have done in the interim, asks questions, seeking feedback from the students and their parents, the therapist, social worker, prosecutor and defense attorney in the room.
Instead of sentences, he doles out incentives for perfect attendance and consequences for students not toeing the line.
Although juvenile court has much the same philosophy, the process moves so slowly students often don’t see consequences for their actions for months.
Those involved in the pilot program think it’s working — and an interim study bears that out.
Of the 30 students who participated in the first two groups, 86 percent — or 24 of them — successfully completed the program, according to a study by the Juvenile Justice Institute at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Students in the program showed dramatic increases in attendance while they were enrolled. Although their absences increased once they’d finished, their attendance still was better than before they’d participated. That held true for eighth-graders who moved onto high school.
For instance, 16 of the students involved in the first group had a total of 2,520 absences — an average of 157 absences per student — the semester before the diversion program. That dropped 80 percent — to just 503 absences, or an average of 31 per student — while they were in the program.
The semester after they’d finished, the number of absences spiked to 1,098, but still was 56 percent fewer than before they’d been through the program. The absences include those excused by parents or for illnesses and tardies.
The study suggested finding ways to continue to engage students after they’ve finished the program to help keep attendance rates up.
It also noted that some students’ grades went down despite improved attendance, and suggested looking for ways to prevent that.
Social worker Tina Bouma is sold on the benefits.
“It’s just a wonderful program,” she said. “And it works.”
There’s a multitude of reasons why children don’t come to school, said Zabawa, Park principal.
“In some cases, we found it really wasn’t a student issue,” Zabawa said. “We were really working more with some parenting and stability in the home, to try to provide support for students.”
Sometimes, it was problems at school, sometimes time management issues.
In one case, Zabawa said, a girl often missed her first class because it took her a half-hour to do her hair. That was important to her, Zabawa said, so they worked on making sure she got up a half-hour earlier in the morning.
“That’s just coaching them, teaching kids to take responsibility,” he said.
The incentives for perfect attendance often were gift cards to the mall or movies, but they could be other things, too — such as an alarm clock. Alissa — who loves photography — got a memory card for her camera.
Often, putting two or three heads together helps find answers to barriers keeping kids from class, Bouma said. It also lets students know there are adults they can go to when a problem arises to help them work through it.
“I think that’s huge,” she said.
Surprisingly, Bouma said, transportation rarely was a problem — an issue officials thought would be a much bigger barrier.
For Alissa, it boiled down to this: She didn’t like school. She and her family had moved back to Lincoln from Kentucky at the beginning of her seventh-grade year, and going to a new school was tough.
“I had just moved to Lincoln, and I really didn’t have any friends, so I didn’t want to go because it wasn’t fun to me,” she said.
The threat of ending up in court scared her enough to take the diversion program seriously, and Bouma and the therapist helped her work through the school “drama” issues that had been a problem.
“It helped me a lot having them around just to talk to and open up to about all of that,” she said.
Laura Splittgerber, Alissa’s mother, said she and her daughter fought daily about going to school before she entered the diversion program. Sometimes, she’d just keep her daughter home. Alissa’s behavior overall was worrying Splittgerber.
“We were going down a bad, bad path,” she said. “She was starting to take off in the middle of the night. It was heading down a bad road.”
Splittgerber liked having the support of other adults.
“It’s not just mom screaming that (she) needs to get to school,” she said.
The pilot will be finished at the end of the year, but officials want to continue it. Sara Hoyle, the county’s juvenile justice coordinator, is looking for additional grants, and organizers discovered that much of the therapist’s time can be covered by Medicaid.
Ryder said he’d be open to expanding the program if other schools were interested, including high schools, because the ultimate goal is graduation.
Zabawa said the program gives students the resources to accomplish the first step toward that cap-and-gown goal — getting to and staying in school.
“If they’re not in school, they’re not going to be successful. The first step is getting them there — and helping them with problems in their lives.”