McHenry County considers adding truancy investigator
After last school year saw a dramatic increase in truancy cases among McHenry County students, the McHenry County Board is considering adding a truancy investigator to the regional office of education.
Currently, just one person handles all the truancy cases throughout McHenry County, which includes about 47,000 students. A new hire would take some of the work away from McHenry County Regional Office of Education truancy officer Tim Dempsey.
"The main focus of it would be to alleviate the burden," Dempsey said of the proposal. "If you're only one person in the county, you can only get to so many kids."
Truancy happens when a student has nine unexcused absences.
Cases of truancy rose dramatically during the last school year, which saw a good portion of classes across all grade levels take place online at various points of the year.
The county had 511 truancy cases last year, according to the county board. That is up 265% from 140 cases during the entire 2018-19 school year. The 2019-20 school year, which ended with remote classes at all schools, saw 247.
Dempsey said the amount of work he handles every day changes, but the numbers add up throughout the year.
"It's very hard. Sometimes, it's 10 cases a day. It's difficult because if you have 500 kids that need help, you can only get to one or two a day. That's more days the other students have to wait," he said.
Last year's remote learning added cases to his workload for several reasons, he said.
Some cases involved students skipping their online classes, deciding to play video games instead while their parents were at work. Others happened because some students didn't have access to resources like the internet needed to attend class.
"They're trusting the kids to get up and go online. They go on PlayStation instead. A lot of these kids, unfortunately, didn't see the upside of attending the school," Dempsey said.
The increase in cases and lack of staffing to deal with the large number led Regional Superintendent Leslie Schermerhorn to call on the county board to give Dempsey some help.
"While student truancy has been on the rise, McHenry County has reduced the number of truancy personnel from 2.5 positions in 2012 to one now," Schermerhorn wrote in a Northwest Herald guest column last month.
In an interview Monday, Schermerhorn said Dempsey dealt with more than 700 students throughout the year.
"Tim was doing all this (outreach) on top of all his regular cases. While you see 500 cases, that no way reflects the number of students he reached over the last year," she said.
In his role, Dempsey will go to a student's home when the school requests help with a student who is not attending class. Normally, he tries work out the student's situation and get them back into the classroom, but sometimes, that involves work with the legal system.
The proposal being considered by the county board would give Dempsey a second person to work with. Schermerhorn said Dempsey's role would transition to more coordination with a second person to pay more visits to students and parents.
This will give Dempsey some help as he expects truancy cases to stay high this year too.
Dempsey said he thinks truancy cases may remain higher this year for a different reason: parents who don't want students to wear masks.
"I try to talk to (the parents) and reason with them," he said. "My job is to get their child to school. Once they get to school, then the school's job is to educate them."
If approved by the county board, the county intends to pay for the new truancy investigator through funds obtained through the federal COVID-19 relief dollars allocated as part of the American Rescue Plan. The new investigator position would cost about $85,000, including salary and benefits.
Schermerhorn said using federal dollars to pay for the new position would allow them to hire the new truancy officer faster.