Fighting truancy to keep kids out of court system

In Washington State, 75 percent of prison inmates do not have a high school diploma.

That’s why Stephanie Sato, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Senior Specialist in Truancy Intervention, is passionate about education.

“Basically education re-engagement is crime prevention. When I worked in our juvenile division I got to see it for myself. The students skipping school—they’re not bad kids—maybe there are problems at home. But, if you don’t catch truancy early, they fall behind,” Sato said. “It spirals out of control into criminal activity, and I don’t know if the kids even knew how they got there.”

Stephanie Sato, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Senior Specialist in Truancy Intervention

Stephanie Sato, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney and Senior Specialist in Truancy Intervention

After a student is recorded for seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 unexcused absences in a year, school districts are required by state law to file a petition with the court. All school districts within King County, apart from Bellevue and Seattle school districts which have their own attendance workshops, partner with the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on truancy prevention and intervention, a team that includes two Truancy Workshops Coordinators, Diana Parra and Linda Thomas, and Superior Court Truancy Facilitator Melody Edmiston.

“We work together with the schools. We don’t have authority over them because the court and school districts only work together by agreement,” Sato said.

When Sato first started in truancy prevention three years ago, the process for filing a truancy petition was heavy on paperwork but sometimes light on follow up. Typically, after a student attended a required truancy workshop, their attendance wouldn’t be tracked enough to determine whether court intervention might convince the student to re-engage in education rather than proceed to a court hearing.

“They would go to a workshop, or maybe not go, and then the truancy representative from the school district was supposed to request a hearing from the court or dismiss the case. A lot of the ‘stays’ would expire and nothing would happen,” Sato said. “The student would essentially fall through the cracks, so we wanted to change that system.”

Now the process is much more streamlined and focuses on re-engaging a student so that a court appearance is unnecessary.

After a truancy representative files a petition, the family of the student receives a letter within two weeks that requires them to attend a truancy workshop with their child. The PAO Truancy workshop coordinators worked to ensure the information is communicated effectively by offering the letter in multiple languages and information on how to get to the workshop, including bus routes.

Sato said King County’s emphasis on Equity and Social Justice has set a precedent on how she approaches her work.

“I’ve been to a lot of ESJ lunch and learns and presentations, and I love them. I keep thinking of ways to reach our population in a matter they can hear,” Sato said.

The workshops themselves were redesigned and refined over time to make sure that students and their families were getting the most out of them.

“When they come to the workshop, we try to educate parents as much as possible as to why school attendance is important, to offer them information and resources,” Sato said.

Students and parents are asked to complete an “Education Reengagement Agreement.”

“When they start with ‘What does your child do well?’ and the child explaining what they think they do well, the workshop starts off on a more positive note,” Sato said.

Sato saw the need for more organization with the schools, so she started monthly “check-ins” where she and a school representative would touch base on the attendance status of a student.

“It’s a way to make school districts accountable and to make sure they’re looking at the student,” Sato said. “Once they’re on file, they’re better with taking care of it.”

Ultimately, Sato says truancy prevention is one of the keys to reducing incarceration rates and increasing social justice.

“Keeping kids engaged in education is a huge crime prevention tool. I mean, it is the best crime prevention tool ever,” said Stephanie Sato.