Truancy Program Keeps Kids Out of Court

By: Sarah Snyder
NewsWest 9

MIDLAND COUNTY - They were headed for a life behind bars until someone stepped in. Truancy numbers and juvenile crime plummeted this year and the credit is going to a Juvenile Alternative Education Program.

When Midland County kids are cited for truancy they don't just sit in court and do community service: they enroll in a 12 week Teen Leadership Academy. That program helps students and parents with life skills, goal setting, and anger management.

"You know it's kind of funny," James Henry, Midland County Juvenile Alternative Education Program Director, said. "I've never heard anyone thank someone for sending them to jail, but I have actually heard young people come back and thank Judge Cobos for being tough on them and realize the choices they were making as a juvenile were going to have an affect on how they turned out as an adult."

It was ten years ago that Midland County Judge David Cobos and James Henry began this program. They say the success has grown over time, but this year is different than any other. 900 truancy cases were filed this time last year, but this year only 180.

"We've talked with the truancy officers in the schools and the best explanation they have is that the kids are going to school," Henry said. "We see that as an impact of the work that's being done here in the court."

It all sounds good but NewsWest 9 wanted to hear first-hand what it's like on the other side. Enter Lawrence. As a fifteen year old, he found himself in the courtroom for shoplifting. That landed him in James Henry's class where his life started to turn around.

"Self confidence, how to keep your confidence high, how to say no to peer pressure, how to take no for an answer," Lawrence Langley, Truancy Program Graduate, said.

He says when graduation day came he realized something had changed.

"I can't believe I've come this far," Langley said. "I can't believe where I'm standing. People are going to look at me differently now. I'm not the same troubled teenager I was."

Now he's working on a career as a law enforcement officer. But his ultimate goal is to work with the truancy court hoping to impact someone like himself.

"I've been on the inside," Langley said. "I've seen the prison. It's nothing that I want, but I know if it hadn't have been for this class, I would be there."

"It goes to show that all the work really did mean something," Henry said. "To see a parent see their kid graduate and the joy and happiness within them - it makes it all worthwhile."

The Alternative Education Program is funded through the state. This year they were cut by about half but even so they ended up with the biggest drop in truancy cases they've ever seen.