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Provo School District addresses student truancies through court

By Sarah Dallof | Posted - Oct. 13, 2011 at 10:01 p.m.

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PROVO -- In one courtroom in Utah County, a tough judge is cracking down on teenagers. But those who face him aren't in trouble with the law.

The Provo School District has partnered up with a Salt Lake City law firm to get to the bottom of teenagers skipping classes. But the reasons behind the truancies are often more disturbing than the numbers: teenagers in abusive homes, health problems and drugs.

The school district is not focusing on one or two unexcused absence, they're looking at the bigger picture. For one teenage girl, she's already missed 29 days of school this year. And studies show that children who get into trouble with things like gangs and drugs also had high rates of truancies.

Attorney Damian Kidd is used to arguing in front of the bench, but every two weeks, he's the one handing down the judgments. For the past three years, Kidd has been the judge at Provo's Truancy Court, getting to the bottom of why teenagers are skipping class.

He helps the adolescents set obtainable goals, but hands out tough love when the goals are not met.

"This is all about them," Kidd said. "We're all here on a voluntary basis."

Kidd is the first to admit he didn't like school growing up, which helps him relate and reach out to the students in his court. He's an example of how far an individual can get in life, even if going to class isn't the most favorite thing to do.

Sometimes they don't understand that while it's not fun, it's something they have to do.

–Damian Kidd

"Sometimes they don't understand that while it's not fun, it's something they have to do," Kidd described.

The program appears to be working, too. Provo District officials are seeing the number of truancies drop.

Marcial and Kevin Valera are recent graduates of the program. Both graduates missed school to stay home or hang out with friends at the mall. Now, both are back on the path to their dream jobs as electrical engineers. Even their grades have improved.

"At first, (my grades) were in the middle -- not so good," said Kevin Valera. "And now they're all the way up."

It is a relief to their mother, Zaire Valasquez, who works long hours, starting at 6 a.m. She had no idea they were not going to school. Now, she says she's proud of them and their hard work.

"If they don't have a good education, there's nothing for the future," said Valasquez. "They have to graduate and get a good job."

Students who don't follow the judge's instructions are referred to the juvenile court for help. Although rare, the majority of students are making progress, with their parents by their side for support.



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