The Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation encompasses 86,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. Of 3,413 tribal members, 1,818 live on the reservation. More than one-third of those members are under the age of eighteen. The tribal government provides a variety of youth related services including Head Start, health, mental health, alcohol and other drug abuse services, child welfare, and delinquency prevention and intervention, as well as a tribal police department and Tribal Court. Although the government worked diligently to provide services that addressed youth issues, truancy was a problem that continued to affect many students. Before attending high school, Lac du Flambeau youth attend schools that are approximately 98% Native American. This number shifts dramatically when these students begin high school, where the proportion of Tribal youth decreases to 18%. During the 2005-06 school year, Native American high school students had a truancy rate of 30.7%, compared to 3.1% for the non-native student population. All truancy cases for Tribal students fall under the jurisdiction of the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Court. However, the court was having difficulties resolving this issue on its own because it could not address the root causes of truancy. Another problem was that parents were often uninformed of the truancy issue until they were asked to appear in court. The outcomes of these cases included fines of 250 to 300 dollars or referrals to Indian Child Welfare, creating a very acrimonious relationship between families and the court. In response to this situation, the Lac du Flambeau Tribal Youth Program created the Truancy Reduction Program (TRP). Youth found guilty of truancy now have the option of deferring their fines and entering the program. If they successfully reduce their truancy below their previous level within nine weeks, their fines are retracted. The TRP program teaches both youth and parents about educational and other related services that the school offers, and works with each student’s family to focus on the underlying reasons behind the truancy. Truancy-related issues often result from problems that can be addressed within the educational system, such as an inappropriate class level, a schedule that does not allow a student to eat meals, or transportation issues. TRP staff work with students to create a schedule that better fits their needs. Youth also receive a class checklist that each teacher must sign in order to verify the student's attendance. This gives students an incentive to initiate face-to-face contact with their teachers, and provides them with a written “receipt” or proof that they attended a class. The TRP began sending weekly truancy reports home so parents could better monitor their child’s progress. However, this initiative was not as successful as staff had hoped, because they received little feedback from parents. To address this issue, the team began calling and visiting parents at work, as well as providing incentives for signing and returning truancy reports. Parents were offered gift cards at local grocery stores and students were offered gift cards at the school store, in exchange for three consecutive weeks of signed reports. The program kept money circulating within the community and school, and many parents initiated communication with the school for the first time. Currently, the TRP program has a 65% success rate for reducing truancy. Project Director John Young notes that one of the program’s most positive outcomes is that it teaches both students and parents how to advocate for themselves within the education system. Following these successes, TRP staff began negotiating with the court to create a program to work with truant youth before they became involved with the court. The Attendance Improvement Team (AIT) emerged from this effort, and is modeled after recommended best practices from the National Center for School Engagement. The AIT works with youth who have accrued five unexcused truancies or absences. The team consists of the school social worker, Indian Education Mentor (who serves in the capacity of a guidance counselor), truancy officer, and juvenile justice staff. The team receives a weekly printout of truant students, meets to discuss a plan for each student, shares information, and decides who will follow up with each family. In addition to personal communication, the school also sends a letter out to parents so that the initial contact with families is from the school, instead of the court. If the family chooses to enroll in AIT, they complete a 30 day program in which the student cannot miss more than three classes. The program uses a solution-focused approach, and includes biweekly meetings with families. It offers a place where families can honestly discuss these concerns and the team can step in to support them with logistical assistance and referrals. When a family is dealing with more serious issues, such as substance abuse, AIT will refer them to outside services. Since the team is located within the community’s Family Resource Center, it can refer families to services that are housed within the same building. If AIT believes that an issue is very serious or must be dealt with immediately, it refers the case to the court. Since AIT's implementation, truancy has been reduced by 85% for youth in the program. Parents are now more aware of issues in their children’s lives, and can work with their children to better address their concerns. In the future, Mr. Young hopes to expand AIT’s efforts and create a Truancy Assessment Center. He believes that one reason the program has been so successful is because staff were able to first identify and collect extensive data on the problem before approaching other partners. The partnership then utilized its initial successes to gain the court’s trust, enabling the creation of a program focused on prevention as well as addressing each student’s needs comprehensively.
“Truancy is a difficult issue to address because of the confusion about who is responsible for tackling the problem…Is it the school’s problem? Child welfare? Law enforcement? Or should we simply blame the parents? Once you can change the ‘mind-set’ to recognize truancy as a ‘community problem,’ then you have an environment for true collaboration. The most valuable tool that I can use to effect this type of change is good data; without it, you have a very difficult time convincing others that the problem is not one-sided. Truancy is complicated because you can’t treat it as an individual problem. You must look at all of the factors involved, and be willing to be an equal participant in the process.” -John Young, Program Coordinator