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The Clark County School District administrative building as seen on Friday, July 27, 2018. (Jeff Scheid/The Nevada Independent)

Clark County commissioners approved $12 million to combat chronic absenteeism in public schools, but board members expressed skepticism that the school district would hold up its side of the proposed plan.

“It’s not a lecture, it’s just frustration. This is the last chance for the [school] district in my opinion, [otherwise] I’m leading the charge on new options,” said Chairwoman Marilyn Kirkpatrick during a 30-minute discussion on the commissioners’ reservations with the plan.

The exchange was the latest show of strain between CCSD and the board of commissioners, who questioned whether CCSD principals would cooperate with the proposed plan.

With the approval of AB309 this spring, Clark County was authorized to implement a sales tax increase to fund education programs, including those that address chronic student absenteeism. Commissioners approved a one-eighth of a cent sales tax increase, which they estimate will generate more than $50 million.

Commissioner Larry Brown expressed concern that the truancy program would be ineffective without buy-in from the school principals, which the commission said they had struggled with in the past. Although Jack Martin, director of the county’s Juvenile Justice Services, said he was steadfast in his commitment to helping the students through the proposed program, whether he had to “tattle” on a principal or not, Kirkpatrick was not convinced that would work. 

“I received tons of resistance from those principals wanting to do anything, so it’s shocking to me that we’re going to rely on the principal. I’m going to just tell you, I’ll be the first one to the Legislature [in case] it doesn’t work,” Kirkpatrick said.

Kirkpatrick also noted she had received pushback from the school board of trustees to establish resource centers to help students and their families address the underlying reasons for absences.

Thus far, 15 “high-truancy” schools have been identified and have begun what CCSD Assistant Superintendent Tammy Malich referred to as a ‘pilot’ program to address the issue of chronic absenteeism. Chronic absenteeism includes truancy (counted by unexcused absences) as well as excused absences and suspension.

In the previous school year, 22 percent of Clark County students were absent for 18 or more school days (above the statewide rate of 19 percent), according to the presentation given by Martin on Tuesday. By targeting chronic absenteeism, the county intends to work with the school district to improve academic performance, decrease the number of youth in the juvenile justice system and decrease the load of educational neglect referrals to the Department of Family Services.

“The ask today is to expand this. But we have already met with these principals, we've already brought them to the table. We've recorded personalized messages. We have a tiered support system through our current existing resources. Every one of these principals were on board,” Malich said on behalf of the school district during the presentation.

When it comes to chronic absenteeism, education and juvenile justice systems tend to intersect as the student misses more and more school. County commissioners, the Department of Juvenile Justice Services and Malich agree that school principals can help facilitate outreach from county-approved service providers to students’ existing support networks, which is a goal of the program.

Commissioner Lawrence Weekly chimed in with skepticism about the county’s plan and CCSD’s cooperation.

“Kids that have come out of Desert Pines, Canyon Springs, Cheyenne High Schools, those kids never knew about any of these programs unless they're touched by law enforcement and your system,” Weekly said to Martin. “I'm, like, having no faith in any of this at this point, because my last takeaway from the meeting with the school district, I was very discouraged, extremely discouraged.”

One of the stated goals of the proposed chronic absenteeism program was to decrease the number of youth in the juvenile justice system. The proposed plan would triple the number of The Harbor juvenile assessment resource centers, run by the Department of Juvenile Justice Services from two to six locations.  

Since opening in 2016, The Harbor has provided assessment and referral services, short-term case management, crisis intervention and classes for more than 10,000 youth and their families, according to Juvenile Justice Services. According to a Clark County press release, about 25 percent of clients are walk-ins from the community, and some are youth who have been arrested for first-time or low-level offenses and have been diverted by police or Juvenile Detention Center staff.

Another element of the county’s chronic absenteeism plan is engaging community partners to create a network of providers and support. Martin presented a list including several departments of the county, the City of Las Vegas and state agencies. The list also indicated the business community and nonprofits such as Three Square and Mastering Mindsets, but not in terms specific enough for Weekly.

“I know a number of nonprofit groups with some serious boots on the ground that have a lot of these kids’ attention that are never called to the table,” Weekly said. “How do we get some of these real people who are really touching their lives and turning these individuals around?”

At that sticking point, the commissioners suggested ways the chronic absenteeism plan could be improved, namely by focusing more closely on engaging community partners, and not relying on school principals to carry out the program. At the end of the discussion, Kirkpatrick asked the other commissioners whether they had a problem with at least “frontloading” the plan and getting it going.

“I know there's a reason that the district is not leading the charge, but I don't know what the ramifications are except to go to the Legislature if the partnership doesn't continue,” Kirkpatrick said.

With the $12 million, the county will be able to hire more than 60 staff members to work at the four forthcoming juvenile assessment centers. The departments of Family, Social and Juvenile Justice Services say they will focus on developing a three-tiered system with response protocols appropriate for each tier, as well as a public education campaign for schools and families to engage in curbing chronic absenteeism in Clark County. 

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