Shelby Co. truancy program could be model for state - FOX13 News, WHBQ FOX 13

Shelby Co. truancy program could be model for state

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    Friday, October 4 2013 3:43 PM EDT2013-10-04 19:43:45 GMT
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SHELBY COUNTY, Tenn. (FOX13) -

Eight years ago school truancy was reaching epidemic proportions in Memphis. Figures indicated 25 percent of all the juvenile crimes being committed then happened during school hours.

But, a program of truancy mentoring created by the Shelby County District Attorney's Office has been so successful it's drawn statewide recognition.

MORE: Shelby County Mentoring-based truancy reduction program

The main catalyst for that success begins with the heart. But the first part of the success story was with legacy Memphis City Schools' truancy program.

In 2006 FOX13 News sent a crew out to do a story on truancy in the city. We thought it might take some time and they'd probably be lucky to catch a couple of children skipping school. The crew came back in an hour with pictures of 15 different young truants in three different areas of the city, complete with expletive laden excuses as to why they weren't in class.

Something had to be done. And you know what? Something has been done.

On first sight they would seem to make an "odd couple." But, Memphis middle-schooler Rodney Jones and his truancy mentor, retired salesman Ed Cooley, are a work in progress, with a goal of becoming a "team."

"There's been some rough spots in the road between Rodney and I, but, I think we've grown to respect one another," Cooley said. "I don't have all the answers for Rodney, but I do a lot of listening."

"The heart speaks and it just works," Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich added.

Ed and Rodney are among the 25 students matched with mentors this year through the Truancy Reduction Program monitored by DAG Weirich's office. Both attended a news conference Thursday at Chickasaw Middle School, which included a trio of state officials, among them, former Shelby County DAG Bill Gibbons, who established a pilot truancy program in 2006 to reduce the thousands of juveniles who were moving from skipping school to delinquency at a rate of 25,000 to 30,000 truancies a year.

Eight years later, the program's expanded from just three schools to 13 in the process. It's gotten the attention and adulation of state government.

"We believe that this mentoring program being implemented by the district's attorney's office here can really be a model for the entire state," said Gibbons, now the Tennessee Public Safety Commissioner. "It has the potential to do that."

"We can do all we can," added Jim Henry Children's Services Commissioner. "But, unless you change things at the community level, it is never going to change."

Changing the culture of truancy doesn't just begin and end with roping in waywards. Because to get into the mentoring program the parents of truants must be actively involved. If nothing else, there's a stiff monetary incentive to do so.

"We start off with five unexcused absences," said Shelby County General Sessions Court Judge Loyce Lambert-Ryan. "So, when a parent comes to see me they're already looking at 50 days in jail. Plus $50 for each day their child has not attended school."

"What we give those parents and that child the opportunity to do that day is be matched with a mentor," DAG Weirich added. "To be matched with an adult who is willing to give a minimum of eight hours a month to spend time with that child."

"Last weekend we were walking downtown," said Jane Roberts, truancy mentor. "We went to get some Gus' Fried Chicken and she looked around and said, 'Isn't it just beautiful downtown?'"

Once they get you in the program, you probably won't want to leave and I certainly wouldn't want to leave. Because Rodney's a special guy and the thing is there's a lot of special guys out there."

If you're interested in becoming a truant mentor call the District Attorney's Office and be prepared for a background check and a four-hour training session before getting an assignment.

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