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Judges: Truancy and dropout numbers 'staggering' in W.Va.

November 01, 2011|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD | matthew.umstead@herald-mail.com
By Chad Trovinger, Graphic Artist

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — In the last decade, more than 34,000 students dropped out of school in West Virginia, and statistics show about 80 percent of them will end up in prison, a circuit judge told an overflow courtroom crowd Tuesday in the Berkeley County Judicial Center.

"The numbers are staggering," said 19th Judicial Circuit Judge Alan Moats, who began an anti-truancy and dropout program in Barbour and Taylor counties when he realized he was seeing many of the same people appear before him in criminal cases who had appeared before him in truancy cases.

In 20 years, the state's prison population increased from a little more than 1,600 inmates to about 6,870 as of two weeks ago, Moats said in his presentation, "Truancy, Dropouts and Drugs."

That figure does not include people being held in regional jails or participating in day report centers, said Moats, who is taking part in a series of meetings being held statewide on truancy with state Supreme Court of Appeals Justice Robin Jean Davis.

"We can not afford to wait another minute to address this problem or to allow another young life in West Virginia to be wasted," Davis said before introducing Moats.

Moats cited figures indicating that among 44 people indicted at the onset of the September/October term of Circuit Court last year, 31 were dropouts.

He also found that most of the cases he has presided over stem from  drug use, particularly abuse of prescription drugs such as Oxycodone.

Circuit judges attending the meeting Tuesday nodded in agreement when Moats asked if the number of their cases linked to drugs were similarly high.

"There's a lot of it," 23rd Judicial Circuit Judge Gray Silver III responded.

Berkeley County Schools Superintendent Manny P. Arvon said after the meeting that, based on his experience, 10 days of missed school in elementary school often balloons into 30 or 40 days in middle school.

While there is a need for laws with teeth that will help school districts force students to be in school, Arvon said it's "frustrating" because parents still have be committed to the partnership to teach their children.

Arvon said the school district lacks rules to force students to make up the time they miss, but noted that the school district has programs in place to try to address the truancy issue.

School administrators are frustrated because truancy is not being enforced at the school level and so many cases are landing in court, overwhelming the judicial system, Arvon said.

While Arvon said the school district has a 96 percent attendance rate, statistics released by the state Supreme Court of Appeals indicated that more than 1,300 Berkeley County students had 10 or more unexcused absences in the 2009-10 school year.

More than 150 students in Morgan County and more than 140 students in Jefferson County missed 10 or more days without an excused absence that year, according to the figures.

When asked about the statistics, Arvon said the figures do not appear to jibe with the attendance rate.

"I think kids miss too much school, period," Arvon said.

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