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Dakota County has taken a new approach to the age-old problem of truancy, focusing on home visits and counseling rather than juvenile court dates.

Under the new model unveiled last year, schools referred 486 truant students — about twice the previous year’s number — to county social workers, generating what officials say are promising outcomes. Three new employees were hired this summer to accommodate the heftier caseloads.

“We kind of flipped [our approach],” said Andrea Zuber, Dakota County social services director. “It’s not because these kids don’t want to go to school, it’s really much more that we need to focus on what’s going on with the whole family in order to stabilize kids.”

Administrators refer students to the county more often because they know they’ll receive the support they need, said Leslie Yunker, Dakota County children’s mental health and truancy supervisor.

Officials also cite a new online portal that lets school administrators make referrals to the county without stacks of paperwork.

Truancy — defined by statute as seven unexcused absences during the year for students ages 12 to 17 — has many causes. In Dakota County, mental health issues top the list, which is why social services are more effective than punishment in curbing truancy, Yunker said.

During the 2017-18 school year, no Dakota County students were sent to court for truancy unless they had other behavioral issues.

“The court process is extremely ineffective,” said Timothy Zuel, program manager for Hennepin County’s Be@School initiative and an adjunct social work professor at the University of Minnesota. “And then it’s extremely expensive.”

Dakota County isn’t unique. Government agencies across the state and nationally have been moving toward less punitive strategies, buoyed by supportive research.

Officials with both Hennepin and Ramsey counties said their truancy programs also rely less on court in favor of a more family-centered, child-wellness approach.

“The model has very much evolved here in Minnesota,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, whose county’s truancy program is called School Attendance Matters.

Buy-in from schools

Long before a truant is referred to Dakota County, the schools try to create an atmosphere that keeps students coming back, Yunker said.

Yunker visited all but two of the county’s secondary schools last year, she said, to help administrators understand the new approach.

“I was amazed at the buy-in,” she said.

If a student is referred to the county, the first step is a visit with the family at home rather than at school, as was previously done.

“Sometimes [families] didn’t want school to know some of their private information,” Yunker said, “and so families weren’t always willing to share what they were experiencing.”

The student fills out several questionnaires, and the social worker tries to determine the causes for missing school by talking with the family. Once triggers are identified, various strategies are tried, ranging from therapy to parenting education.

To close a truancy case, students must attend school 90 percent of the time for 45 consecutive school days. During the 2017-18 school year, 52 percent of students referred met that benchmark, Yunker said.

The county doesn’t keep that statistic, Yunker said, so comparison with previous years is hard. But longtime staff members found it impressive. Just 12 students were re-referred for truancy in 2017-18 once their initial case was closed.

Comparing data for the outcomes in different counties is hard because of variations in demographics, contrasting ways of measuring success and the point at which students are referred to the county.

Too much fun at home?

Reasons for repeatedly skipping school range from practical needs not being met — housing, transportation or money problems — to addiction issues.

Yunker said a growing concern, and one that likely contributes to the referral increase, is students missing school because they want to stay home and play video games or surf the internet.

“When you have students who have every electronic toy known to mankind located in their bedroom … it can often be a more rewarding experience to be at home,” she said.

Just 6 percent of students in Dakota County were truant because of a school environment factor, she said.

Jodi Hanson, an assistant principal at Eastview High School in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district, said she supports the county’s new practice. She said that she’s seen improved support for families and better attendance among formerly truant students since the county made the change. Last year, Eastview referred 11 students for truancy support services, compared with nine in 2016-17.

Hanson recalled one truant student who was open-enrolled at Eastview. Her parents were driving her from Farmington and couldn’t make it every day, she said. She ended up enrolling in her home district.

“Sometimes it just takes that level of involvement where we really look at all the issues,” she said.

Erin Adler • 612-673-1781