It's Tammy Lalonde's job to keep children in school – and she's not afraid to use the courts, if necessary.
As one of the five attendance counsellors for the Simcoe County District School Board, north of Toronto, Ms. Lalonde takes on the role of social worker and truancy officer, working with students who are habitually absent from school and at risk of dropping out, and trying to guide them back into the classroom.
"I am here to help," she said. "Most of our students value that there is another caring adult involved and there to help them … achieve their academic success, whatever that might look like for a young person."
But that guidance may not always be enough, as Ms. Lalonde's understands all too well. A 16-year-old student from the Simcoe school board spent last Friday night in a Barrie jail for missing a court appearance where she was to answer to a judge about why she was consistently absent from school without cause. And last week a teenager from Cornwall, Ont., was charged by police with eight counts of breaching his recognizance for failing to attend school numerous times during the current academic year without permission.
Ontario school boards turn to the courts as a last resort to keep students in school. The Education Act requires children between the ages of six and 18 to attend school regularly. Unless specifically excused because a child is home-schooled or ill, for example, students, their parents or employers who schedule teenagers to work during regular school hours can be found guilty of non-attendance, an offence under the act, and fined up to $200.
The Simcoe school board reports that about 10 cases a year head to court. At the Toronto District School Board, Canada's largest, 167 cases of habitually absent students were referred to the courts in the last academic year, up from 140 cases the previous year.
Other provinces have similar provisions for school boards. In Manitoba, the parent or guardian of a child who fails to attend school regularly can be fined as much as $500. In Alberta, an attendance board appointed by the Minister of Education has the same powers as the Court of Queen's Bench to direct a student to attend school. If a ruling is not obeyed, it could result in contempt-of-court charges.
Poor attendance often results in students not graduating and having difficulty finding and keeping jobs, and it contributes to low self-esteem.
Constable Nicole Rodgers of the Barrie Police Service said the Simcoe teenager was detained on Friday for failing to attend court.
"It's not very unusual," she said of cases of habitual absenteeism being brought in front of a judge. "We see it a lot more than what people think." She said that one police officer dealt with a student who had missed 50 days of school. "It's not just from skipping on a Friday because you want to hang out with your friends. It's a long drawn-out absenteeism," Const. Rodgers said.
Paul Sloan, superintendent of education at the Simcoe board, said charging a teen under the Education Act is not done lightly. "It's not something that we do as a first step, I can assure you. But it's a step in the process that reluctantly and infrequently we would get to if circumstances are such that we need to," he said.
Ms. Lalonde said school principals and staff try to get students on track. If that doesn't happen and a student is still missing school, she gets involved. Ms. Lalonde deals with as many as 300 cases a year, generally involving students who have missed 15 consecutive days of school or have been absent for 20 cumulative days.
Students who struggle have a myriad of problems, including addiction or mental health issues, learning disabilities or family issues, said Ms. Lalonde, who has an education background in psychology and family mediation.
Attendance counsellors work with students and families, often reaching out to community agencies and re-jigging timetables to ensure the student can attend school. Ms. Lalonde will sometimes even drive a child to school.
David Boag, associate director at the Halton District School Board, west of Toronto, said he is not sure that taking cases to court is the most effective way to keep children in school.
"It's pretty rare that nothing will work for a student, so we go through a variety of options," Mr. Boag said. "Our schools are great at looking at creative ways to engage kids."