Back to school brings new focus on truancy enforcement in one county

“Back to school” means just that for authorities in one southwestern Minnesota county who plan to crack down on students who skip school, fall behind and often get into trouble. Reports in recent years indicate as many as one in six Minnesota students in public and charter schools miss ten percent or more school days.

This fall newly appointed Renville County Attorney Kelsey Kingstrom has called on schools and local authorities to double down on truancy. She wants to work with educators to identify and engage students who fail to attend class much sooner than before in hopes of keeping them on track and out of the criminal justice system, according to the West Central Tribune.

The success of the program will depend greatly on whether schools in the county support it. “It’s going to take a huge amount of school buy-in,” Renville County Attorney Kelsey Kingstrom told the Renville County Board of Commissioners on Aug. 2.

Kingstrom, who was appointed county attorney earlier this year, proposed the new truancy strategy as a counter to the county’s current policy, which did not put a truant student before a judge until he or she had missed 22 or more days of school.

“That’s a disservice,” said Kingstrom. By that point, a student has already missed too much school to advance to the next grade and will have to repeat the grade, she said.

The point is to get to the bottom of the issues that lead teens to skip class before they fall into high risk behaviors like drug use. Under the proposal, truant students would be identified by schools after only two days of unexcused absences, initiating a team effort to work with the student and family.

Importantly, the program also asks that school staff be part of meetings involving students, their parents or guardians, and county attorney staff when truancy issues are flagged.

According to the plan, a letter will be sent by the Renville County Attorney’s Office to parents and guardians when a student has two days of unexcused absences. The letter will alert the parents to the absences, and encourage them to contact school staff to address the issue.

When a student has three days of unexcused absences, a meeting will be scheduled involving the county attorney’s staff, the student, a school representative and the parents or guardians.

Six unexcused absences will trigger another meeting, this one including a school counselor or administrator along with the parents or guardians, students and attorney staff. It will alert the offending party that one more absence will make them truant under the law.

Students who fail to comply will be called before a judge after racking up seven or more days of unexcused absences. It’s an ambitious plan that could strain both school and law enforcement resources. But the focus on truancy lines up with the 28-year old Kingstrom’s old-fashioned approach to the law aimed at holding law breakers fully accountable, while reinforcing community safety and way of life.