Often, laws are created in the wake of a tragedy. In Washington state, the legislature passed what’s called the Becca laws in 1995 in the wake of the murder of a 13-year-old girl named Rebecca Hedman.
The laws are aimed at creating systems to track and get help for kids who are engaged in risky behavior, including chronic absence from school.
Hedman had been running away from home and using drugs. Her parents sent her to a drug treatment facility in Spokane, but she ran away from that and wound up getting killed by a man who had paid her for sex.
The Becca laws require that school districts file petitions in juvenile court when kids have seven unexcused absences in a month or ten in a year. The laws put a system in place for tracking students who are chronically absent – something that juvenile justice experts say was a positive development – but they also had unintended consequences.
When kids fail to follow through with what the judge orders, they can get sent to juvenile detention facilities. There, they may be placed in detention along with kids who have committed sometimes serious crimes. According to the most recent numbers provided by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, Washington state leads the country in incarcerating youth for status offenses such as running away or skipping school.
“Unfortunately there’s nothing therapeutic about detention,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat who represents the 33rd legislative district and is a social worker by training. “And we know a lot of these young adults have trauma histories, mental health, drug, alcohol, maybe they’re behind in school, so we need to match what they need with what’s going on with them and not have a punitive response.”
In 2016, the Washington legislature passed legislation co-sponsored by Orwall that requires juvenile courts and school districts with more than 300 students to establish community truancy boards. The aim is to find solutions for kids who are chronically absent and keep them out of the court system, if possible.
The boards can include community volunteers, school officials and a representative from the juvenile court. The board meets with a student and his or her parents to identify what the problems are and come up a plan while the truancy petition is stayed in court. If the student fails to follow through with the plan, then the petition moves forward in court.
In many parts of the state, these community truancy boards are new. KNKX recorded one meeting in the Bethel School District in Pierce County to give listeners a window into this shift in how the state is approaching truancy.