CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some students who've been skipping school in St. Albans will have the chance to turn things around before facing criminal charges because of a new program in the city's municipal court.The program began Nov. 5 and is meant to give students time to fix problems with excessive absences before charges are filed against them or their parents."We hope it will send a strong message to students that they don't want to do this anymore. It will lay out the law," said St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway. "If it moves on to a higher level -- magistrate court and the prosecutor's office -- parents and students both can be punished severely."After talking with school officials, Callaway approached Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Plants about the idea to start the diversion program. The mayor pointed out that the program wasn't started because St. Albans has a larger number of truant students than any other county in the state.About 1 in 5 West Virginia students -- almost 78,200 -- had five or more unexcused absences in 2012, according to the state Department of Education. More than 29,000 students, or 9 percent of students statewide, were truant more than 10 days last year.Almost 40 percent of public schools in West Virginia had more than a quarter of their students skip school five or more times without an approved excuse in 2012. At 25 schools, more than half of the student body was truant for five or more days."Mayor Callaway is being proactive. I think it's better any time students can be held accountable without involving the criminal justice system," Plants said. "These are the teens who need services and attention sooner rather than later," Plants said. "This is allowing more time and resources to be put into each case."Kanawha County assistant prosecutor Erica Lord volunteered to help the city with the program. Before prosecuting adult offenders, Lord worked mainly with juveniles and dealt often with truancy cases.
"I'm passionate about kids. When Mayor Callaway called, I was really excited because it shows a lot about his dedication to children and his community," she said.Last week, two students deemed truant by the school's attendance officer appeared in city court before Lord, who served as judge. Callaway and the school's vice principal and an attendance officer also were there."We went over with the child and the parent how many days they had missed and the reasoning as to why they had missed," Lord said. "We came up with a plan of things we want them to do and told them to come back in two weeks to make sure they're complying."The students were told to attend Saturday school to make up for the days they have missed, Lord said. They were also directed to start participating in the school's credit recovery program."These kids are going to be held accountable and get a chance to get straightened out before having to go through the whole court system," Lord said.This is the second diversion program St. Albans offers juveniles. "Teen court" was started about two years ago, Callaway said.When a teenager is charged with a misdemeanor, such as shoplifting or smoking, the mayor said, they'll attend a court made up of their peers. Instead of being fined and getting a criminal record, they'll be assigned community service.
"Parents really appreciate it because I think they sometimes feel lost as to what to do. They will have already done a lot of things trying to get their kids to turn around," the mayor said.Reach Kate White at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.