A sullen teenager, sitting in a lecture hall at Nashua North High School, tells Judge Thomas Bamberger that he skipped school because he didnít have any clean clothes to wear.
The unexcused absence was his 23rd of the school year and occurred just two days after he and his parents signed an agreement in Bambergerís school-based truancy court, promising that the boy would attend school every day for the rest of the year. Under the agreement, if the young man went to all of his classes, his truancy case would be dismissed, allowing him to avoid conviction and 230 hours of community service and his parents to avoid a fine of up to $2,300.
Bamberger asks the studentís parents, who are required to attend the truancy hearing and are seated on either side of him, why he wasnít in school on the day in question.
"We donít have the finances, actually, to do laundry on a regular basis, so thatís my excuse," says the father.
With further questioning of the teen and his parents, Bamberger learns that the young man also recently failed to show up to work and was fired from his job.
"Why didnít you show up?" he asks.
The boy shrugs. "I was just in a bad mood that day."
The conversation is familiar to Bamberger, who has presided over the truancy court in Nashua since fall 2010. Modeled after a program in Rhode Island, truancy court takes the view that the school is the best venue for dealing with a school-related problem.
"The idea is that it doesnít make a whole lot of sense to take kids who arenít going to school out of school to talk to a judge about why they arenít going to school," Bamberger says.
Nashuaís truancy court convenes at 7 a.m. every other Tuesday Ė on unpaid time, before Bamberger and the local juvenile court clerk report to work at the 9th Circuit District Division Court. The program also requires the volunteer attendance of two school resource officers, the school attendance officer and guidance counselors, who work with the students on a daily basis and report on their progress. Bamberger talks to students and parents about their obligations, the importance of education and the consequences of additional unexcused absences.
"This is an all-volunteer operation," Bamberger says. "Itís just a group of people who care about these kids and try to make sure theyíre in school."
CHINS Cuts Change Court
The truancy court Ė the only one of its kind in the state Ė took a brief hiatus after the New Hampshire Legislature two years ago drastically reduced state funding for the Children in Need of Services (CHINS) program, effectively eliminating Bambergerís district court jurisdiction over truancy cases.
The court now operates under a Nashua city ordinance that prohibits truancy and imposes on parents a fine of $100 per unexcused absence. Instead of ordering families to get mental health or other social services, as he did under CHINS, Bamberger asks the parents to seek help, using the threat of a trial and fines as incentive.
Under CHINS, when families required outside intervention to address the reasons children werenít in school, court-ordered services were paid for by the state, which then sought reimbursement from parents through payment agreements. Now, Judge Bamberger suggests families contact Michelle Keyworth at the Greater Nashua Mental Health Center, which has started a "truancy intervention" program in the wake of the CHINS funding cuts.
Keyworth, a therapist and the program director, explains that truancy intervention is "kind of a fancy name for referring truant kids to mental health services." An extension of Community Connections for Youth, the program serves children who are involved or at risk for becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. "Itís a way to get them into treatment, monitoring and therapy," she says.
"In 2011, when the New Hampshire Legislature defunded the CHINS program, truants were no longer served under CHINS, so this whole population of kids who used to get all kinds of services, because they used to be a CHINS case, were now sort of left out in the cold," says Keyworth.
Through the new program, truants and their families can receive services within a week or two of referral, rather than the six- to eight-week wait that is standard for regular calls for service to the mental health agency. "Thatís important for truants, because they canít wait two months for an appointment, if theyíre not going to school in the meantime," Keyworth notes.
The mental health center bills parentsí private insurance or Medicaid for services received through the program.
Increasing Parental Engagement
Though truancy court sessions are held at Nashua North High School, students from both of the cityís high schools can have cases heard there. Because of constraints on time and capacity, however, the schools usually only file complaints against juniors and seniors with more than 20 unexcused absences during the current school year.
"We try to keep the number of cases under 10, because they do have to be heard within an hour," Bamberger says. "Personally, I think that if we had the jurisdiction and the capacity, it would be great to deal with these kids when truancy first raises its ugly head in their lives, but unfortunately, the circumstances donít allow us to do that."
Many of the families coming before Bamberger have serious financial problems. Some of the students and parents have diagnosed mental health conditions. Some donít speak English. Others have what many people would consider to be the wrong priorities.
Take the case of the dad who said there wasnít enough money to do the laundry. After the court session was over, Bamberger wondered during an interview where the familyís limited resources were going: "You canít make these inquiries, but you want to ask them, ĎDo you have a cell phone? Do you have cigarettes?í Those looked like pretty expensive sunglasses he was wearing."
In an effort to shift priorities and increase engagement, truancy court gets parents into the school building to meet with their childís guidance counselor, often for the first time.
"The advantage of being in the school is that everybody is right here," says Bamberger, adding that it has also given him the opportunity to forge a relationship with Nashua North Principal David Ryan. "Before we had the truancy court, I probably would never have even met Dave."
Last year, 70 percent of the schoolís truancy cases were dismissed after students improved their attendance or found an alternative way to earn a diploma. Bamberger always gives families the opportunity to turn things around.
"Iím not interested in taking these peopleís money," he says. "Iím interested in getting these kids to school."
In response to the cut in CHINS funding, Manchester School District officials have expressed interest in starting a truancy court in the Queen City. Bamberger says he hopes they do and that more people join in a dialogue about the best ways to combat truancy.
"Weíre doing the best we can, and I hope itís something that can grow and become more effective down the road."