May 13, 2010 -- Skipping school could get a lot riskier next year for some students in Omaha, Neb.
Under a complicated plan aimed at reducing truancy among its residents, the Omaha Housing Authority could, in a worst-case scenario, evict a family whose child chronically failed to attend school.
Between 2005 and 2007, the graduation rate of Omaha public schools dropped from 62 to 55 percent. And with 60 percent of students in those schools considered "economically disadvantaged," according to the Chief State School Officers in Omaha, officials searched for a creative solution to combat the problem.
"We came to the conclusion that we are the biggest provider of housing for low-income students," said George Achola, legal counsel for OHA. "We are one of a few agencies that have the capability to affect the lives of our residents 365 days a year."
OHA houses nearly 3,000 families in the city and there are 1,300 school-age residents who would be affected by this plan, which is still being written by officials at the Housing Authority.
Currently in Omaha, after a student misses 20 days of the school district's 172-day school year, Nebraska state law requires administrators to report the student to the county attorney.
Dave Patton, director of Omaha Public Schools said truancy has been on everyone's minds lately, because the frequency of these referrals has swelled into a substantial problem in just one year.
In Douglas County -- where Omaha is the county seat -- 640 students have been referred to the county juvenile court this year. While they represent only a small proportion of the 48,000 students in the system, the number has risen substantially, from 239 in the 2008-09 school year. Achola said he hopes OHA and OPS will together do a better job of making sure the referral rate goes down next year.
"The major agencies in Omaha -- us and OPS -- both have information that we, up to this point, haven't shared with each other," Achola said. "If we talked to each other, we'd be more powerful and find a way to break down the problem of truancy."
Differing Definitions of Truancy
And while many states differ in the threshold they set before sending students to juvenile court, 20 days is generally the maximum number before administrators take legal action.
States also differ in the definition of truancy, which not only causes more gray area, but also makes it difficult to compare one state with the next. Most agree, however, that truancy is when students miss school without any excuse. The U.S. Department of Education's most current data regarding national trends reported that between 1989 and 1998, "the rate of petitioned truancy status offense cases handled by juvenile courts increased by 85 percent" -- a problem that's continued to get worse.
And while not every school in Omaha is experiencing truant behavior from its students, Achola said OHA decided it was time for them to intervene in the lives of its residents -- if only to improve the likelihood of graduation for the 370 high school seniors that live in the developments.
A similar eviction-as-a-last-resort policy exists in Norwalk, Conn., but officials there didn't respond to inquiries from ABC News about the program. Candace Mayer, deputy director of the Norwalk Housing Authority told the Omaha World Herald in early March that the Norwalk agency "has not evicted anyone because families of truant kids have accepted help in curbing absenteeism."
One national organization, however, was skeptical about the plan that will be introduced in Omaha schools this fall.
"My gut sense is that it will be a disaster," said Jodi Heilbrunn, senior research and policy analyst at the National Center for School Engagement.
Heilbrunn said punishing an entire family by evicting them doesn't address the cause of truancy.
"Truancy is the thing that lets you know there's something else wrong," Heilbrunn said.
Schools in Racine, Wis., Raleigh, N.C. and Grand Island, Neb. are using another, more common approach to curtail truants.
In Grand Island, school administrators, working with social workers and the Hall County District Attorney, have been running what's known as "attendance court" for the past two years for students who are absent for more than 10 percent of the term's classes.
"If you want kids to learn, they've got to be in school," said Deb Harder, learning director for Grand Island Public Schools. "What we were doing wasn't making a difference, so we try to intervene earlier before they get set in their bad habits. You don't have to get in panic mode."
Once teachers and administrators notice a student has repeatedly missed school, they arrange a face-to-face meeting with the district attorney, the school social worker, the parents and the student. With the attorney acting as the judge, they write an attendance plan for the student, addressing what steps the family could take to prevent the student from skipping class. This meeting often gets to the root of the problem.
"Poor attendance is a symptom of something else that is happening in a family," Harder said. "When the true issues bubble up during the attendance program process and we are able to help a family, we have experienced success."
While it's perhaps too early to measure the success of the Grand Island program, other schools that have had the program for several years have reported a major drop in truancy rates.
But Heilbrunn warned against the preoccupation with only raising attendance.
"It's tremendously important that truancy issues are solved, but the goal is not to reduce truancy," said Heilbrunn. "It's to promote learning, a value of learning."
ABCNews.com contributor Andrew Mach is a member of the University of Nebraska ABC News on Campus bureau.