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'It's been rough and hard:' Palm Beach County parents taken to court over chronic student absences

More than 25,000 Palm Beach County students have missed at least 15 days this school year
A classroom at Okeeheelee Community Middle School in Palm Beach County on April 8, 2024.jpg
Posted at 5:15 PM, Apr 15, 2024

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — We know kids need to be in school to get a good education. But absenteeism and truancy are bigger problems now than they were during the COVID-19 pandemic.

That’s prompting the School District of Palm Beach County to do what it’s never done before: take parents to court.

"In the beginning of the year, I didn't have him that much because he was absent a lot," Palm Beach County science teacher Annalise Wellman said. "But when he did come in, he was this little ball of energy."

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WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind speaks to Palm Beach County science teacher Annalise Wellman and her student, Sergio, on March 27, 2024.

SPECIAL COVERAGE: Education

Nowadays, Sergio never misses eighth grade science class with Ms. Wellman. But it wasn't always this way.

Over the past year, absenteeism for kids like Sergio has become such a glaring problem, leaders in the School District of Palm Beach County said they needed a new way to tackle it. So they began issuing truancy petitions to parents, requiring them to appear in court to explain their child’s excessive absences, as well as to find solutions.

Palm Beach County juvenile court Judge Kathleen Kroll listens to every story with empathy, respect, and a genuine desire to help.

"There are lots of roadblocks in our community," Kroll told WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind. "Some are parent and child-related, but some aren't. It's the situation people are in and learning about all those things and how we might come together as a community to improve the benefit for our kids in school."

Palm Beach County juvenile court Judge Kathleen Kroll speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 5, 2024.jpg
Palm Beach County juvenile court Judge Kathleen Kroll speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 5, 2024.

So what is truancy? It means a student has missed 15 days of school within a 90-day period.

The exact number of truant students changes day to day because it's based on a rolling 90-day calendar. However, school district leaders told Susskind that more than 25,000 students have missed more than 15 days this school year.

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The School District of Palm Beach County defines truancy as when a student misses 15 days of school within a 90-day period.

The district has filed at least 20 truancy petitions since May of 2023, bringing parents to court for the most serious situations.

"It's really when it gets to that point where, at the school level we've exhausted, at the district level we've exhausted all interventions, and the kids are still not coming to school. Then we've really got to take this step," said Keith Oswald, the chief of equity and wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County.

Keith Oswald, the chief of equity and wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County, speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 5, 2024.jpg
Keith Oswald, the chief of equity and wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County, speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 5, 2024.

Oswald said this process is revealing the core issues keeping children from coming to school.

"We've seen homelessness. We've seen issues with employment. We've seen issues with food insecurity. You name it, we've seen it come out," Oswald said.

"Ever since their dad passed away until today's date, everything has been on my back. And it’s been rough and hard," said Sergio's mom, Barbara.

Barbara, a Palm Beach County mother whose son has struggled with school attendance, speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 6, 2024.jpg
Barbara, a Palm Beach County mother whose son has struggled with school attendance, speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 6, 2024.

Barbara said the family has faced several challenges these past few years, with housing being one of them.

"Has that been the biggest struggle for you all?" Susskind asked Barbara.

"Yes," Sergio's mother answered. "The biggest, biggest struggle to today's date."

"Is having a place to live?" Susskind followed up.

"Yes," Barbara replied.

But that's the silver lining of truancy court. It brings community organizations together in one place to give families the support they need.

"We're going to find out how I can get you assistance, money, food stamps," Judge Kroll recently told one family during a court hearing in March.

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Palm Beach County juvenile court Judge Kathleen Kroll speaks to a family during a court hearing on March 5, 2024.

"By bringing all of these providers to the courtroom, we are able to address these issues and really help the family get back on their feet and get the kids back in school, which is what we really want here in Palm Beach County," Oswald said.

"He's doing aftercare. He's doing recycling. And he's been really improving his grades and improving his attendance," said school truancy liaison Mayra Henry. "So I believe that this family is going in the right direction because of the process they had to go through."

WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind speaks to Palm Beach County school truancy liaison Mayra Henry on March 27, 2024.jpg
WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind speaks to Palm Beach County school truancy liaison Mayra Henry on March 27, 2024.

Henry said she sees the difference in Sergio's motivation, knowing he now has the support to lift him up in the teachers who see his potential.

"I know I can count on her," Sergio said of his science teacher, Ms. Wellman.

"Maybe people haven't told him in the past that he's able to. But I know deep down in my heart, from the moment I met him, that he is more than capable of doing amazing things in the future," Wellman said.

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Palm Beach County science teacher Annalise Wellman and her student, Sergio, work with a microscope on March 27, 2024.

Bringing Sergio's future a little more in focus.

Truancy is a second-degree misdemeanor, so it could lead to 60 days in jail for the parent. But Judge Kroll said that is not the goal. She said the court has not needed to go that route with any of the cases.

Some, though, have gone to family dependency court to work through some of the more complex issues that couldn't be solved in her courtroom.

Judge Kroll said she was eager to come onboard to lead truancy court.

"I jumped on it and said, 'Yes, I'm here for you. You are here for me. Let's go.' It's wonderful that it is happening. The parents definitely want children to be educated," Kroll said. "We are going to recognize there are problems like housing. And we're going to try to help the families with how to succeed in our community and get the kids back in school."

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A teddy bear sits in the courtroom of Palm Beach County juvenile court Judge Kathleen Kroll during a hearing on March 5, 2024.

Kroll added that her goal is always to provide whatever resources she can to help the family be successful.

"We have not yet gone to the criminal side, where we are going to have to appoint a lawyer for them and look at incarceration as a penalty. Because, again, what really happens is the parents want their kids to succeed. The first thing we are always after is, tell me what is preventing your children from attending school and being successful?" Kroll said.

The judge said housing and transportation seem to be the biggest barriers for families right now, but the truancy court process is making a difference.

"The children are coming to school. They are doing well. They are healthier. The families are healthier. And that's a great success," Kroll said.

Oswald said the problem of absenteeism skyrocketed after the COVID-19 pandemic.

"After COVID, we saw a lot of issues arise in our families with kids not coming to school on a regular basis. Attendance, the truancy rate, were getting worse here in Palm Beach County, and many of our families had lots of issues," Oswald said. "Our schools were going through the process of doing interventions at the school level, but we still have not seen a change in many of our families."

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Keith Oswald, the chief of equity and wellness for the School District of Palm Beach County, speaks to WPTV education reporter Stephanie Susskind on March 5, 2024.

Oswald added the district is seeing more cases come up.

"What we want to do is let the community know that being in school, it's a law. So you've got to bring your kids to school. If you need assistance, if you need help, reach out to your school, reach out to the district," Oswald said. "We don't have to get to this point of coming down to the courthouse. What we want to do is intervene earlier."

Oswald said they've seen a lot of good outcomes so far.

"Oh my gosh, we have such great success stories where kids are now back in school, attending regularly. They are happy. Most of the kids, all of the kids, they want to be in school. There are just a lot of challenges that our families face," Oswald said.