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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Should Judges Lock Kids Up For Skipping School?

Skipping school is not a crime in Washington state, but it can still land a student behind bars.

Juvenile courts in Washington lead the nation in locking up minors for truancy and other non-criminal offenses, led by Grays Harbor County on the Washington coast. And Superior Court Judge David Edwards believes juvenile detention is sometimes the best thing for a truant kid.

Truancy court is for students who have seven unexcused absences in a month, or 10 in a year. Washington law requires school districts to file a petition with juvenile court when that happens. Once a petition is open, the student reports to court -- sometimes weekly.

Any additional unexcused absences or other violations of court orders can result in contempt charges. And contempt can lead to detention.

“Detention is an important tool in making some of these kids understand that they are, in fact, responsible for their behavior,” Judge Edwards said.

'If you’re back here again … you won’t go home'

On a recent Tuesday morning at Grays Harbor truancy court, there were 17 kids on the docket. First up, were a pair of brothers. They were in trouble for not complying with a school district-based drug treatment program.

Both teens stood before Judge Edwards and admitted to ongoing marijuana use.

“They both need to get clean and sober so I’m going to keep them [in juvenile detention] for a few days,” Judge Edwards said.

When one of the brothers started to cry, Edwards said, “Don’t cry. There’s nothing to cry about.”

The brothers said a brief goodbye to their mother -- who was also crying. They were then led away and placed in handcuffs as the next youth on the docket was called.

Judge Edwards sent one more teen straight to juvenile detention for skipping school. Three other kids got stern warnings that next time they will get locked up. One of them was a middle-schooler suspended for disrespecting his teacher.

“If you’re back here again and I get a report that you’re being disrespectful to teachers or staff, dropping f-bombs on people, you won’t go home,” Edwards said.

An 11-year-old in detention

Grays Harbor’s juvenile detention facility is a low-slung building on the banks of the Chehalis River.

“We have 32 beds plus a padded cell,” Greg Reynvaan, the county’s Juvenile Court Administrator, said. The detention rooms are a cinder block cell with a single bed and a metal toilet with sink attached.

Linda Hayes, a teacher at the detention school through the Aberdeen School District, said most of the truant kids who show up here are high school age, but some are in middle school. Once in a while an elementary student is locked up, which Hayes said happened recently.

“We got a little boy who was not going to school at all,” Hayes said. “Do I want to see an 11-year-old here? Of course not.”

But Hayes believes detention helped turn things around. She said he’s out now and doing much better.

“There’s a little boy that wasn’t going to school at all that’s now attending with a lot of supports,” Hayes said.

Is incarceration the answer?

But using detention to get there alarms state Senator Jeannie Darneille.

“Oh, that’s unconscionable,” she said. “It’s just really unconscionable.”

Darneille, a Democrat, wants to ban juvenile detention for truants.

“While skipping school may be an indicator that a child may be having problems, incarcerating them is not the answer,” she said.

But Judge Edwards opposes an outright ban on detention.

“I think that would take away important options for us,” he said.

He believes even just the threat of detention can change behavior. When a teen mom came before him for a regular check-in about getting to school, Judge Edwards told her, “You were here two weeks ago and I told you that you needed to have perfect attendance or you weren’t going home and you had perfect attendance.”

So he rewarded her and set her next court date out four weeks instead of two. He assigned her to work with her school counselor on a plan to graduate high school.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."