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Truancy program aims to help families, students

Updated: November 30, 2013 7:54PM



GARY — Hidden somewhere in all the reasons — or excuses — why kids are skipping school is a solution, and Gary City Court’s Project Rebuild is determined to find it.

The truancy court, launched last year with parents who volunteered to participate, begins Wednesday, when parents of 151 students will appear in court to answer a city ordinance citation for parental neglect.

That’s when the choices begin for both the parents and their children.

Those who plead guilty can avoid paying a fine by joining Project Rebuild, which offers counseling, tutoring and support programs to strengthen the families and improve students’ school attendance and performance.

“We want to rectify the truancy. If parents have the means to deal with it, and they don’t need to participate, that’s fine. But if they don’t have the means, we are there to provide,” said Gary police Cmdr. Kerry Rice.

Judge Deidre Monroe noted that five West Side High School students were suspects in a daytime burglary just blocks from the school.

“Keeping them in school will cut down on crime, and at the same time, it keeps them safe,” she said. Program organizers presented the plan to teachers, administrators and social workers earlier this year and the response was very positive, she added.

“I can’t understand why parents wouldn’t want their kids in school,” she said.

Judge Inga Lewis-Shannon, who will oversee truancy court again, said she is very excited to begin the year. “It is so great to see the changes in the students,” she said. “We can finally start to really make a difference.”

The educators, social workers, court personnel and police who volunteer for Project Rebuild hear “all kinds of reasons” why children miss school, Rice said.

“Bullying, can’t afford the uniforms, mom’s sick and someone has to stay home with the baby,” Rice said.

One young girl refused to go to school because students made fun of her hair, and her family couldn’t afford to get it done, so “we had a beautician volunteer to fix her hair,” Rice said.

Other obstacles are more challenging, Rice said, but program volunteers will work to find solutions.

Here’s how it works: Any student with five days unexcused absences is referred to Rice. It includes Gary Community Schools, Roosevelt High School and charter schools. Rice already has 151 referrals.

Parents get a citation and must go to court on the day set for city ordinance violations. Monroe said pleading guilty could result in a fine up to $250, but that can be waived and replaced with joining Project Rebuild.

If a family successfully completes the three-month program, the charge is dismissed.

Anyone who pleads not guilty can argue their case before the judge. “But they can be cited again,” Monroe said.

Repeat offenders could face criminal charges.

Rice said the first citation is not a criminal matter; any family on public assistance would lost those benefits if they were charged.

“We’re not trying to punish families, we are trying to help them,” Rice said. Families who join the program will appear before Shannon-Lewis Nov. 5. She said other agencies, including Edgewater Systems for Balanced Living, Indiana University Northwest and the Clark Road Baptist Church will provide counseling, career guidance and tutoring.

Charmella Greer, spokesperson for the Gary Community School Corp., said school officials are eager to reap benefits from Project Rebuild.

“Here is an opportunity for us to join together in an effort to keep our students in class,” she said. “We’ve had some courageous conversations which will result in holding people accountable — not just parents — for ensuring that all students arrive every school day ready to do their academic best.”



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