Judge Herzfeld announces ‘rapid truancy’ plan for area schools

Saline County Circuit Judge Robert Herzfeld announces his new “Rapid Response Truancy Program” during a meeting with area school officials Friday. The new program went into effect Tuesday.
Staff Writer

Saline County Circuit Judge Robert Herzfeld announced Tuesday that he is implementing a new “Rapid Response Truancy Program” in coordination with Saline County public schools. The program went into place Tuesday. 

“We have developed a plan and are allocating all available resources to keep more kids in school and out of juvenile court,” Herzfeld said.
For the past several years, Saline County Juvenile Court has worked with local schools to dramatically improve school attendance. 

“The existing truancy system — which was first developed in 2009 by now Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood in Conway and then adopted here in Saline County — focused on getting parents engaged in the process, delivering service to families who needed help, and partnering with school officials to ensure we are all working together toward the common goal of keeping students on track to graduate,” Herzfeld said.  “Our new program does all of those things — but faster and with more personalized attention.  The key to the program is to move quickly in partnership with the schools to get and stay ahead of truancy cases. To use an old term, we want to head ‘em off at the pass.” 
Under Herzfeld’s plan, juvenile intake officers will meet with the student and parents at the school within days of the school’s truancy referral instead of waiting weeks or months for a court date. 

“Often, between the school’s referral and the court date, the students would miss many more days of school,” Herzfeld added. “They would lose credit and often lose hope. The critical thrust of our plan is to respond rapidly enough to give the students a chance to save themselves.”

On Friday, Herzfeld hosted an informational meeting at his courtroom with more than 30 local school officials to coordinate implementation. 

“I really like the common sense aspects of the program,” said Karen Hilborn, Benton High School assistant principal.  “It’s so practical, I think we’ll see positive results right out of the gate. Plus, having the warning meetings at the schools instead of the courthouse keeps the students in school — which is kind of the whole point.”
Lisa McNeely, a social worker with the Bryant School District, said: “Sometimes truancy is the problem, but often it’s a symptom of more serious issues in the family related to stability, drug use, or mental health concerns such as depression.

“Judge Herzfeld’s plan brings his experienced juvenile officers face to face with families so they can quickly determine if there is a crisis and open a court case if appropriate,” McNeely added. “On the other hand, if it’s simply a matter of getting the parents and student on the right track, then we can get their attention and keep everyone out of court.”
The second “rapid” element of Herzfeld’s plan comes into effect if the student has more unexcused absences after the first contact with juvenile officials. 

“At the first meeting, we’ll enter into a ‘diversion agreement’ with the family where they have a clear understanding of what’s expected and the consequences if they break the agreement,” Herzfeld said.
According to Herzfeld, if the school notifies the juvenile court that the student has missed class again without a legitimate excuse, the Prosecuting Attorney Ken Casady will file a case and the family will be in front of Herzfeld in court within a matter of days. 

“Again, the rapid response gives us the chance to hit the problem fast and get them back in school instead of missing another dozen days before they can get in court,” Herzfeld added.
The final element of the plan is to minimize — or even eliminate — court review hearings for students who remain in compliance.  “If they’re following the rules, then I don’t see any reason to drag them back to court every two or three months to tell them ‘great job.’ They know they’re going to school. I don’t need them to miss school to come to court for me to tell them how wonderful it is that they’re not missing school,” Herzfeld said.
Herzfeld has designated Juvenile Officers Jennie Standridge and Roshunda Foreman to handle the primary truancy intake duties with Standridge focusing on the Bryant School District and Foreman handling Benton, Bauxite, Harmony Grove, East End and Glen Rose. Longtime Juvenile Court Director Carol Childs and Juvenile Intake Officer Jay Gwatney will serve as standby intake officers, backing up Foreman and Standridge to make sure the warning meetings are held quickly. 

Although Herzfeld is the new juvenile judge — having taken over the duties just this summer — he is not new to juvenile court. Before law school, Herzfeld served as a juvenile probation and intake officer in the ‘90s under his current fellow Circuit Judge Gary Arnold. 
He also prosecuted juvenile cases in the Atlanta area while in law school. 

“My past experiences working in juvenile court let me hit the ground running,” Herzfeld said. “I knew our juvenile court staff was already doing good work, and I have a lot of faith in (Childs). We’ve all been able to get on the same page very quickly. Taking over juvenile court has increased my workload, but frankly, I’m enjoying it quite a bit. Some of the cases are tough, but we have the chance to make a real difference in these kids’ lives.”