Some described it like watching a crack grow wider and wider — wide enough for kids to fall through.
When public schools shifted to online learning last year, some students began to drop off the map. Limited face-to-face interaction with educators, economic turmoil and the inevitable emotional issues that came with COVID-19 meant more kids were simply disengaged in school.
In 2020, a tumultuous pandemic school year led to a 3% statewide decline in public school enrollment. In Lewis County, the rate was more than double that.
And with new pandemic-era rules around truancy, the statute allowing courts to compel kids to go to class were, as Lewis County Juvenile Court administrator Shad Hail put it, “essentially null.”
For Megan Shepherd, a juvenile probation officer who coordinates truancy cases, getting kids back to class usually meant leveraging the law. When schools filed truancy petitions, the court could impose consequences to uncooperative students, including up to seven days in juvenile detention. Rarely did Shepherd’s work include close relationships with those students.
But the pandemic changed things, as school administrators and juvenile court saw more and more kids fall through the cracks.
Soon enough, Shepherd found herself in jeans and sneakers, walking through neighborhoods knocking on doors, trying to track down students and get them back to school. With no legal power to back her up, her work meant having one-on-one conversations with kids.
It’s “so far outside of what courts do,” according to Hail. “She had no authority or jurisdiction to make anybody do anything in those cases … it was entirely based on that relationship and rapport.
“What a cool moment … to see somebody say, you know, I’m totally willing to go outside of what is my normal job to make this happen, because I care what ends up happening to these kids.”
School administrators and juvenile court officials knew that some students were engaging in class intermittently. Others were totally disengaged. Some had never come back from summer break.
“We were able to figure out through different avenues that social workers were involved with most of those families, and social workers weren’t able to find those children either,” probation manager Rickie Anders said. “So that was very concerning for us.”
Lewis County’s juvenile court division thinks of itself as a hub of resources. Administrators are connected to services involving mental health and food security. And with regards to “missing” kids, officials can help investigate through 911 dispatch calls, lists of addresses and the state’s Comprehensive Education Data and Research System (CEDARS).
There was no precedent for Shepherd to go out and track down kids who needed help but weren’t in legal trouble.
“But we have the time to do it. We have the resources to do it. We need to be doing it,” Shepherd said.
In total, Shepherd and school administration helped nearly 150 students.
Anders admits that when local kids interface with juvenile court and its administrators, it’s generally not a fun experience. More often than not, kids are in trouble. But the dynamic changed in those interactions, when Shepherd and school officials entered homes and asked what they could do to help.
For many kids, Shepherd returned every week, problem-solving things like childcare, counseling and technological issues. In some instances, if Shepherd missed a week, students would call her.
For some kids spiralling into depression, the human interaction was enough to get them to log back into class. For Spanish-speaking families, clearer information from school districts was helpful. For single parents whose older kids had to take care of younger siblings, Shepherd helped find cohorts of local families helping each other with childcare. For parents unwilling to send their kids in-person, paper-packet education was organized.
“It’s tough because a lot of people think ‘just go to school. Just do your school work.’ But especially during COVID, when you have so much on your mind: where are you going to sleep? Where are you going to eat? Those kinds of things. So it’s more than that,” Shepherd said.
Every Wednesday afternoon, Shepherd was joined by James Bowers, Futurus High School principal and Centralia’s truancy coordinator.
“Being straightforward with the kids helped,” he said. “And Megan was that way, and so was I. And I think they appreciated that.”
While Bowers’ day-to-day as an educator relies on relationships with students, his time knocking on doors during the pandemic was still a departure from his normal duties. For students struggling to get work done in a noisy home, he offered earbuds. For those having difficulty getting out of bed, he’d problem-solve with an alarm clock placed across the student’s bedroom.
But many situations were less technical, and required a heart-to-heart.
“There were a number of instances where we spoke with the child and convinced them that it’d be best for them to be in school,” Bowers said. “I’m not a fan of locking kids up at all … We have to build hope in these kids. That’s the best part about the job, is to talk to the kids and build hope and see that kid come back to school.”
It’s important for the community to know, Bowers said, that kids weren’t ditching school out of laziness. Instead, a complex matrix of factors were involved. Many kids, he noted, were trying to help their family survive during the pandemic.
Educators are intimately familiar with the long-term impacts of missing education: things like income levels, mental health and even disease are correlated to education attendance. It’s partly why Lewis County Public Health Director JP Anderson called the spike in unenrollment “obviously a public health issue.”
But Bowers spared students the statistics, instead asking where they want to be in five years. Does that require money? An education?
“Well where do you think you’re going to get that?” Bowers said. “And the realization is ‘yeah, I guess you’re right.’”
Truancy court will still be a thing going forward. But Shepherd wants to continue her work interfacing with kids proactively, before they land in hot water, legally. According to Anders, juvenile court is working to formalize her work.
When the school year begins this fall, an early intervention program will allow schools to refer kids missing school — but not yet prompting a truancy petition — to juvenile court to get connected to services.
For kids on the way to engaging in criminal behavior, including domestic violence against family members, Anders said juvenile court administrators hope to show up after a 911 call and offer their proactive services as well. There are plenty of 911 calls, she added, where no crime is committed, but a family is clearly in crisis.
“Why wait for them to enter our system? There’s nobody intervening,” Anders said, adding that things like functional family therapy could be offered to prevent the situation from devolving into something criminal.
The vision, Hail added, is to show up within 24 hours of a 911 call to offer help.
And when kids do land in juvenile or truancy court, officials have a plan to change the dynamic. The idea is to bring families back for a review hearing even when things are going well — hearing the court say “good job,” Anders said, could be impactful.
“You never get a call from the court to tell you ‘good job.’ You get a call from the court saying you’re in trouble. What if every quarter we brought them back for a review hearing so they can hear ‘good job?’”
A new incentive program will dole out community-donated pizza and coffee gift cards to families successfully engaging in school.
“So for the next year, being more proactive, I hope to not see many kids entering the court,” Shepherd said. “But those kids that we are seeing entering the court, I hope to have more of a positive interaction with them.”