NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – The Davidson County Juvenile Court is tackling the issue of students loitering during school hours or not even showing up by giving hearings for those caught skipping.
The court started last year and has since processed 2,500 truancy petitions.
Getting kids off the street and into class is the goal of the daily hearing held every school day at the Metro Student Attendance Center (M-SAC) off Ellington Parkway in East Nashville.
A student is ordered to appear in front of Magistrate Jennifer Wade any time they are found out of school during school hours without being suspended or expelled.
The student’s parents or guardians must also appear.
“It definitely makes a difference for mom and dad, for sure, when we call and say, ‘You have to be here by 3 ‘o clock for our docket,” Magistrate Wade said. “Those calls are going to parents at work and to going to parents who thought their children were in school.”
When a police or court officer finds a student out of school, they take them to the M-SAC opposed to the juvenile detention center or giving them a citation.
M-SAC employees then use Metro Nashville Public School records to find contact information for the student’s parents.
In years past, it could take two or three months before a magistrate could get to a loitering case. Now it happens within hours of the student being picked up by an officer.
During the loitering docket, the magistrate asks the student why they were not in school.
“Generally students aren’t missing school just to miss school,” Magistrate Wade said. “There are family issues, issues of homelessness, and issues of not having the right school attire.”
She continued, “There are a lot of issues that contribute to our students not getting to school every day.”
According to the juvenile court, M-SAC is staffed by probation officers, social work techs, support staff, and a magistrate or director who handles and hears all of the truancy, educational neglect, and loitering cases.
There are also three staff members from Metro Public Schools and the Metro-Nashville Police Department who report to M-SAC daily.
It was created under Karl Dean while he as Nashville’s mayor in 2008.
Last year, juvenile court Judge Shelia Calloway added Magistrate Wade to operate the loitering a truancy docket.
“We totally believe that if we have children engaged in school and going to school every day, we can address the crime problem,” Judge Calloway said. “Once you become disengaged with school, it is more likely that you are going to be suspended; once you are suspended and you are out in the community by yourself, it is more likely you will end up in the juvenile system.”
Calloway continued, “What we are trying to do is get ahead of that and make sure we are providing services to these kids.”
Students with five or more unexcused absences are considered truant.
Parents and guardians can be charged with educational neglect, a class C misdemeanor, if they do not have their children in school or provide approved home schooling.
The punishment for educational neglect is up to 30 days in jail and a $50 fine. Each day the student misses after being found truant can be counted as a new offense.
Judge Calloway said truant students often turn to criminal activity.
“I cannot tell you how many times when kids come in for serious offenses, and I am deciding whether or not they should be tried as an adult or a juvenile, and I look in their eyes I see they have no hope,” Judge Calloway said. “They don’t see it. They don’t know what it looks like.”
She continued, “They have absolutely no hope for the future, and if you have no hope you are going to do these serious things because you don’t care.”
The juvenile court works with parents and community partners to help support families that are facing issues that lead to skipping school.
Social work techs are in each public housing development in Nashville.
Wanda Peoples is assigned to the University Court housing development in South Nashville.
“I have 600 kids in the area,” she said. “If we don’t see a kid at the bus stop we know should be there, we go and knock on the door.”
Peoples said after students were chronically tardy getting to school at Napier Elementary, the school system assigned a tardy bus to the area. So instead of walking, the students had consistent transportation.
“I can tell you since the tardy bus has been here the truancy rate at Napier has dropped,” she added.
The M-SAC also encourages parents to reach out if they are having issues getting their children to school.
The employees at the M-SAC can offer resources, before the child ends up in the loitering court or juvenile justice system. Click here for more information.