DANVILLE – Vermilion County students who are truant or have issues with chronic absenteeism now will have the option of answering to their peers rather than to a courtroom judge.
Maria Sermersheim became the new truancy coordinator for the Vermilion County Regional Office of Education on Aug. 13. She also will continue her work as the local Peer Court coordinator.
“She brings great experience working with youth in Peer Court,” former truancy officer Tricia Keith, who now is the Regional Office of Education’s program coordinator and homeless coordinator, said of Sermersheim.
Sermersheim plans to incorporate Peer Court as an option for children and teens that “become truant and are not showing improvement.”
“Peer Court would be for students with chronic truancy – that is, nine or more unexcused absences,” she said. “Not all the kids will go (to Peer Court); just the kids from families who we think will be successful.”
Peer Court is a long-established voluntary juvenile court program for Vermilion County youths between the ages of 10 and 18 who have committed and been charged with minor offenses for the first time. Peers act as attorneys and make up the jury that decides on the “sentence,” which always entails performing community service hours.
“It’s going to be a community initiative,” Sermersheim said of using the Peer Court program to remediate truancy issues. “They will do (community) service through Peer Court.
“There will be parameters set, such as they could be asked to do anywhere from 15 to 30 hours of community service,” she said.
The children and teens who agree to take responsibility for their truancy issues will have plenty of opportunities to complete their community service hours by volunteering at the Regional Office of Education, with Peer Court, in the offices of State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy and Judge Thomas O’Shaughnessy, and at Project Success, Sermersheim said.
In addition to community service hours, children and teens will be sentenced to serve on the Peer Court jury, write an essay on the importance of education, create a vision board and tour the Public Safety Building.
“They will have their choice of going to Peer Court or going before a judge at the courthouse,” Sermersheim said.
“It won’t be a punishment,” she said of Peer Court, “but the kids and the parents will see it that way at first. But in the end, we will win their heart.”
Keith said she is eager to see how Peer Court succeeds in remediating truancy issues.
“We’re trying to be proactive than reactive, otherwise it (truancy) becomes a habit year after year,” Keith said. “Peer Court is the best option. Right now, if they don’t comply, they would go to court before a judge.”
Busy beginning of school
Vermilion County schools have been in session only about six weeks, but Sermersheim has had to hit the ground running.
In the first 20 days of school, one 15-year-old student missed 17 days, she said.
“My calendar is already full (of appointments) where I go and visit,” she said. “The first visit is sitting with the school administrator and meeting with the kids to see what’s going on.”
Meanwhile, school officials are doing their part by sending home a letter to inform the parent or guardian of the student’s truancy issue and dispatching a parent/home interventionist to make a home visit.
A week later, if there is no improvement in a student’s attendance, Sermersheim sets up a meeting with that student’s parents or guardian.
“If that doesn’t help, the school administrator goes with me to make a home visit,” she said. “We ask the kids what can we do to help them. We tell the parents we want the best for your kids so how can we rectify this so your kids go to school?”
Keith acknowledged that some truancy issues are not the fault of the child.
“With younger kids, it’s an issue with the parents,” she said. “An unexcused absence can happen when no one calls in to report that their child won’t be at school that day.
“It’s generational,” Keith said. “I’ve dealt with kids years ago and now we’re dealing with their kids.”
For some families, a student’s truancy is a symptom of something much deeper going on in the household or with the child.
“Truancy is just scraping the surface with some of these families,” Keith said.
“Sometimes we find out that they’re homeless,” Keith said of the students. “There were 400 kids last year who were homeless in Vermilion County. Most of them were couch-surfers because their families can’t support them.
“Sometimes they just had a change in where they live, a change in class or bullying issues,” she added as reasons students stop attending school.
Sermersheim said one student told her he didn’t want to go to school because he wanted to get a job to support his family.
Some students face unimaginable challenges and just need reassurance and support from an adult.
“I was so touched yesterday,” Sermersheim said. “I had a student ask me, ‘Can you do two things for me? Could you please check on me and can you tell me if I’m doing OK?’”