UPDATE 12/27/12 @ 6:15 p.m.
HUNTINGTON, WVa (WSAZ) ---- School's out of session for winter break, but the court's in session, in Cabell County, with truancy on the docket.
"Its a huge problem." says Judge Paul Ferrell. "On average we have 25% of every class in the high school levels have more than five (5) unexcused absenses, which is the cut off."
Roughly two dozen adults and children appeared, Thursday, in front of Judge Alfred Fergueson. Many of those present, were first time offenders.
For a first offense, the fine is up to $50 with court courts. The second offense is up to five days in jail for every unexcused absense. The third time, it's up to 10 days in jail, for each day missed."
"It's not their fault, I didn't go, It's mine." says 16 year old Kayla McCaffery. "I just thought I could keep a secret and not go. That didn't last long."
Kayla parents says she's just a typical teenager, who's finding some of the school work difficult, and has used this, although, improperly, as a way to cope.
McCaffery was told her file would stay open for review. Tonight: she's already posted on her Facebook wall. "From here on out, I'm going to change."
UPDATE 8/21/12 @ 11 p.m.
CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Tackling the ongoing issue of skipping school came up again Tuesday night at the Cabell County Board of Education meeting.
School officials are considering bringing in more help to crack down on truancy.
John Winkler, the chief probation officer in Cabell County, told board members about the positives of hiring their own truancy officer.
Cabell County Schools would pay the truancy officer’s salary, but the officer would actually work for the court system.
The board will discuss that possible hire at their next meeting in September.
Three days into the school year, the district already wants parents and students to know they mean business.
Last spring, dozens of students and their parents were called to court because the kids missed far too many days. This year, letters are already going out the first week of school explaining the consequences.
“Your 15-year-old has missed 40 days of school,” Cabell County Circuit Judge Paul Farrell said during the court hearings last spring.
Indeed, at that time it was one case after another through Cabell County Circuit Court -- cases of students missing excessive amounts of school.
“Your child has been identified as having some of the worst cases of truancy at Cabell Midland,” Farrell said then.
The problem was so severe that he made a number of recommendations to the school district to tackle the problem head-on this year, starting with warning letters on almost day one.
“We're sending out approximately 2,400 students who have 10 or more unexcused absences last year,” said Sherri Woods, director of Student Support Services.
Woods is in charge of attendance for Cabell County Schools. While 10 days may not sound like a lot, consider the following.
“A grading period is only 30 days, so you're missing a third of a grading period if you miss 10 days,” Woods said.
The letter from Superintendent Bill Smith doesn't mince words, saying the courts have instructed the district to file criminal complaints with Child Protective Services at the fifth unexcused absence.
The schools say poor attendance is a form of "academic neglect," a new term being used that also means setting a child on the path to failure.
“They don't think of it like food or clothing or shelter, but if a kid doesn't have an education, they can't get a degree or a good-paying job and will spend the rest of their lives in poverty,” Woods said.
To add even more teeth to this bite, parents also will receive a letter from the prosecutor's office promising punishments from fines and court costs all the way up to five to 20 days in jail for every unexcused absence.
“Parents are responsible for making sure their children go to school,” Cabell County Prosecutor Chris Chiles said.
School and court officials make it very clear to turn in excuses for your child's absences in a timely manner if they should have to miss school. Better yet, they'd prefer you make sure your child is in school.
That’s the decision in Cabell County where an epidemic truancy problem has moved from the principal's office to a criminal courtroom.
In our continuing coverage, WSAZ.com went to a parental punishment parade before a judge on Wednesday.
We heard testimony from parent Tanna Steele who said, “I'm a single mother. I see her get on the bus and assume she goes to school.”
But Huntington High records show Steele's daughter has 28 unexcused absences so far this school year. Steele told Judge Paul Farrell that a custody flap is also hampering the issue.
Since 15 of those absences were on the single mother's watch, Steele was found guilty.
Also found guilty were parents Robert and Deborah Prince -- their child charged with 46 unexcused absences. Renee McCoy had 20.5 unexcused absences and Donna Bentley had 25 skips. These parents were found guilty of misdemeanor first-offense failure to have a child in school.
They all received $50 fines that will be waived if the student doesn't miss a day in the next 60 days.
For those who said it's not their fault, Farrell responded: “If it comes down to where your child does not go to school -- if he refuses to go, and you are giving your best efforts -- you need to inform the school and DHHR and the prosecutor's office, and we will take the necessary steps. We will likely remove the child from your home and put him in a foster or group home where they will go to school.”
Parent Christopher Flees was found not guilty, arguing that his son -- around off and on suspensions -- skipped numerous classes, not full days.
But the dad admits this does not solve the family's truancy problem.
We asked Mr. Flees, “What do you do, talk to him, scold him?
He replied, “You talk to them, you ground them, but he's 17 and a half, and there's only so much that he can do.”
Parent Carmen Escue was also found guilty. Her truant daughter was previously taken away and put in a youth shelter -- and made to go to school by the court.
“When she gets back home, I’ll call the school every day," Escue said. "Or at least have teachers write every class that she's in school, so I know she's going. Because I’m not getting in trouble for something that she's doing.”
Farrell says it's about saving these chronic truants and that any second offense by the parents many include up to 20 days in jail.
So far, this Cabell County anti-truancy attack has focused on Huntington High. The judge says next on the list is Cabell Midland High School.
On Feb. 27, Farrell lectured 45 students who'd missed a lot of school to quit skipping or else.
Fourteen of those students ignored the ruling and skipped the very next day.
Now they and their parents are facing the consequences.
About eight students will be removed from their parent or guardian's custody and will be placed in foster care, Cabell County Assistant Attendance Director Theresa Barr Grant said.
“It's sad to see a child taken from their mother, but the judge believes it's neglect on the part of the parents," she said.
Several students and their parents didn't show up at the hearing Wednesday. There have now been emergency orders made to take those kids out of their parents' custody and into foster care.
The students who weren't put in foster care will have to go to a learning center from 3:30 to 8:30 p.m. after school to catch up on their studies.
The parents are facing misdemeanor truancy charges and will have another hearing next week.
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Cabell County courts are putting a plan into action to make sure kids stay in the classroom.
The 45 kids involved have already missed an average of 37 days this school year.
The students and their parents attended a conference at the Cabell County Courthouse Monday where Judge Paul Farrell issued a stern lecture on the importance of attending school.
The warning did not have the immediate effect they were hoping for.
Tuesday, 15 of the students were apparently unfazed and skipped again.
"It's certainly frustrating and points out the degree of the problem that exists," Prosecuting Attorney Chris Chiles said.
Chiles says the students and parents are now facing the consequences.
Juvenile petitions have been filed against each of the students, and their parents and guardians are facing misdemeanor truancy charges.
"I don't feel like it's fair,” parent Chris Flees said. “We're not the only pieces of this puzzle."
Flees says he drops his son off at school every day and watches him go through the door, but he apparently leaves soon after. Flees believes the school should hold some degree of responsibility.
"If the school is not ensuring that they stay there with video cameras or security, should not these same people also be held to the same standard as a parent is?" Flees said.
Cabell County Assistant Attendance Director Theresa Barr Grant says ultimately irresponsible parenting is to blame, leaving those who enforce the rules, and especially the students, with a lot to overcome.
"Of those 45, I'd be thrilled if 20 were successful," she said.
For the first offense parents would be paying a fine, and the second time they'd be facing possible jail time.
The students could then be removed from their parents’ home and put in a state home.