116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — A Linn County truancy program succeeded in getting 77 truant students back to school on a regular basis.
The other goal of the Truancy Deferred Prosecution Program, started in 2019, was to help parents avoid being fined or going to jail for failing to get their children to school.
Overall, the program showed a 66 percent success rate in returning kids to school. Iowa law requires children attend school until age 16.
“The goal of the program is to get these kids back in school and have these cases dismissed without ordering fines or jail time for parents,” Assistant Linn County Attorney Nina Sheller said.
“We want to get parents to the table (to find solutions) because many times the schools have resources to address the problems,” she said. “In some cases, the school doesn’t know what are the underlying problems. I want everybody to be successful.”
The Linn County Attorney’s Office opened 164 truancy cases between May 2021 and May 2022.
Sheller, who works in the county attorney office’s juvenile division, said students were not in school for various reasons, including problems with transportation, mental health problems of children and/or parents, parents not understanding the seriousness of missing school and parents ignoring the absences.
Of the 164 referrals to the program, 74 cases were dismissed, which included 56 cases resolved when 77 students improved their school attendance.
Eight cases were dismissed due to a child’s behavior causing a barrier to returning to school. Seven cases were dismissed because families moved. Two were dismissed because a school made a mistake in the referral. And one case was dismissed due to a “special circumstance,” Sheller said.
In 10 cases, parents pleaded guilty after not completing the deferred prosecution program.
Sheller said 80 cases remain open and are being monitored.
Some of the cases against parents involved multiple children, so the number of students returning to school was more than the number of cases dismissed.
Sheller usually monitors each truancy case for three to six months and possibly longer to ensure students are consistently attending school.
Referrals to the program — for kindergarten through 11th grade students — come from the truancy officials in Linn County school districts.
Sheller said she doesn’t have statistics on which grades have the most truancy issues, but said children typically have 30 or more absences before being referred.
Parents found guilty of truancy, a misdemeanor, face a minimum fine of $105 and up to 10 days in jail.
Linn County Attorney Nick Maybanks said the program numbers show him it is accomplishing the goal of getting kids back in school without putting parents in jail or fining them.
“I think this is the definition of success for these struggling families and a win for the education of kids,” Maybanks said.
Sheller became aware of the truancy problem when she was a social worker before joining the prosecutor’s office more than three years ago.
She started the truancy program while handling misdemeanor cases and continued supervising it when she moved to the juvenile division in March 2021 to maintain the program’s consistency.
“It’s been a really great collaboration between this office, the schools and parents and their lawyers to find positive outcomes,” Sheller said.
Sheller said she began tracking the program numbers last year and didn’t have comparisons to past years.
She said the number of truancy cases were lower when the program started but that referrals have increased over time. More time may be needed to determine the program’s overall success rate, she said.
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