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A new kind of mentor to fight truancy

If, in your reveries, you sometimes think it might be easy to be a judge – just bang the gavel and hand out sentences – consider the frustrations of Dan Heath, who must deal with the errant behavior of young people at a point when it may be too late to help or change them.

Heath, a Superior Court judge, has been pondering such matters ever since he joined the Allen County Family Relations Division last spring. Like all of us, he thought about the rising tide of Fort Wayne killings that now has tied the record. Looking at the faces in his courtroom, he realized that some of the behaviors getting juveniles in trouble could ultimately lead to more serious crime.

Heath believed social data could suggest answers. Kids who drop out of school are more likely to become criminals. Kids who are truant are more likely to be dropouts. And kids who have been allowed to become chronically absent are harder to turn around than those whose truancy is dealt with early.

“It’s an early indicator of a child going down the right path,” Heath said of regular school attendance. “I felt there had to be a connection between truancy and crime. I didn’t realize how deep it was till I looked at the research.”

That’s what attracted Heath to the program he announced last week. Check and Connect is a rigorous mentoring program developed by the University of Minnesota that has been carried out in Minneapolis and a number of other communities around the country.

A trusted adult

The up-front goal is to stop truancy and tardiness, Heath said. More broadly, it also could help ensure that children at risk get some consistent attention from a caring adult. The program works with schools to hire and assign monitors, who are intensively trained and, at least for now, paid as part-time employees.

Patterns of lateness or absence or other misbehavior will identify candidates for the program. A mentor then becomes “a trusted adult in that child’s life for at least two years,” Heath said. The mentor encourages the child to take school seriously, sometimes acting as a tutor, listener or advocate, following up if truancies continue, and, it’s to be hoped, ultimately helping the student learn how to succeed.

“In SOCAP (the county’s Status Offender Court Alternative Program), there are people who have been working the truancy vineyard for many years,” Heath said. And there is, of course, the remedy of court action against the incorrigibly truant.

“It just wasn’t enough,” Heath said. “I think this is a piece of the program that we’ve been missing.”

What’s next

The next steps, Heath told the Allen County Council Thursday, will be to train mentors this spring and start a pilot school next fall for freshmen at two schools with high truancy rates. He’s looking for grants and for community partners.

“There’s no reason in the world that we can’t patch together a number of organizations helping us here,” Heath said. “The Chamber of Commerce runs the Check and Connect program in Bloomington. If (Greater Fort Wayne Inc.) wants to help, if the Boys and Girls Clubs want to be involved, there’s a lot of things that could be done.”

We must get ahead of the curve – work on the causes that drive young people away from productive lives and into despair. Traditional mentoring was a step in the right direction, but this is a plan with some structure and some strong social science behind it.

The idea has merit and deserves our community’s support.