This Truancy Court Pilot Program Gets At-Risk Students to Show Up for School

Truancy Court pilot program at Wai‘anae Intermediate goes from one with the most chronically absent students statewide to one with a 78-percent success rate.
Truancy Court
Family Court Judge Lanson Kupau presides over a Truancy Court case. Parent Jeremiah Lopez sits at far right.
Photos: Aaron Yoshino


Jeremiah Lopez sits in the corridor at Kapolei’s Family Court talking quietly with three of his kids: ages 12, 13 and 14. All three had been skipping classes at Wai‘anae Intermediate School—they’re waiting to appear before a judge as part of a pilot project designed to help, rather than punish, students who stop going to school.


Starting in 2015, The Hawai‘i Truancy Court Collaboration Pilot Project focused on Wai‘anae Intermediate because the school had one of the highest truancy rates in the state, with 35 percent of the 889 students with unexcused absences of 15 or more days. “It was shocking,” says Senior Family Court Judge R. Mark Browning. 


The Truancy Court pilot project aims to improve attendance by intervening promptly when students start to miss school, with a series of steps to strengthen families through community-based services that include calling home, parent conferences, home visits and court appearances. Prior to this program, unexcused absences could go unreported until the next school year.


The Lopez family is back to show progress. Lopez, 61, is proud the three turned around their behavior at school and at home: “They did their chores. They came to school. They do their homework.”


Lopez credits the program for caring about families: “To know that somebody is concerned and you give them an opportunity,” Lopez says, made all the difference. “They got scared in a good way.”


Browning formed the program with volunteers from the judiciary, the state Department of Education, the state Attorney General, and Public Defender’s Office. Judge Catherine Remigio got it organized. Judge Lanson Kupau presides. 


The program planned to start with 50 students, then accepted 68, Remigio says. Most students had missed more than three months of the previous school year. The first year earned an impressive improvement—78 percent completed the school year with fewer than 10 absences, she says.

  Truancy court judges

Family Court Judges R. Mark Browning, Lanson Kupau and Catherine Remigio stand in a courtroom at Family Court in Kapolei.


This academic year shows even more progress: 91 percent daily school attendance at Wai‘anae Intermediate, Remigio says. She also cites reports that estimate the financial cost to society of ignoring truancy can easily soar to more than $400,000 per child because of lost potential, loss to the community and often imprisonment in the worst cases.  But the human costs cut the closest.


For Browning, a pivotal case came a dozen years ago with a teen who hadn’t been to school for two years. “That young man had been thrown out of a two-story window when he was 5,” Browning says. “It took some time, but we were able to get him to go back to school.”


Last year, Kupau saw a 13-year-old girl in court who’d witnessed domestic violence (her mother needed six stitches to her lip), and the trauma tore her apart. The girl’s grandfather testified, in her journal, “she was drawing pictures of herself without a face and indications of not wanting to be here anymore and feeling worthless.”


Kupau says, “At that point, the focus wasn’t on getting her to school, it was on keeping her alive and getting her to family counseling.”  She’s now attending Wai‘anae High School with a laptop computer provided by the school and online course work to help her transition back to classes gradually. 


“They tend to graduate into shoplifting, marijuana and then you start to see more serious law violations.”— Judge Catherine Remigio


We get permission to sit for the afternoon in Truancy Court in proceedings normally closed to the news media and the public. After more than five years on the bench, Kupau has  earned a reputation in the community as fair. He’s a parent himself, warm, encouraging, but firm. And he’s got local credibility. His grandparents and great-grandparents are from Wai‘anae. He grew up in Kalihi and Kāne‘ohe, and makes time every other week to play basketball with kids and probation officers at the Ke Kama Pono shelter.


In court, Kupau holds students accountable for going to school, helping at home, being respectful. When the students show progress, he rewards them by giving them more time before they return to court, and sometimes even gift cards. 


“Who’s in charge of making this happen?” he prompts.  “That’s right, you are.


“I explain to these kids that education equals choice and the more education you have, the more choice you have, choice in what jobs you have, choice in where you live, the clothes you wear, the friends you associate with.”


Truancy court parents
Kiki Keala (left) and Chassidy Cabus talk about how their son (right) is turning his life around.

Kiki Keala and Chassidy Cabus sit in a conference room with their son, who went from being bullied, to getting “caught for being stoned at school.” With their support and the court program he’s thinking differently, back in school and focused on getting into a trades program that would make for an interesting, well-paying job.


Back in the hallway, Lopez motions to his kids with both arms and a smile: “Talking to them helps more than spanking.” Having the court reach out with Jamba Juice and movie tickets when they do well seems simple, yet it was effective.  One of his kids, already a talented baker, now sees a potential future career as a chef.


Like most parents, Lopez is hoping to steer them away from bad decisions. He had polio as a child, got bullied, was sent to foster homes and kept getting into trouble. “The only way I could get attention was to show them I was all that,” he says, shaking his head at the memory of his teen self. “I dropped out of school in ninth grade. I didn’t know how to read and write,” he says. 


Lopez says he ended up arrested again and again for various offenses, serving decades in prison. He says there he saw the value of learning, earned his high-school-equivalency degree, and took classes in welding and auto mechanics. “I had to go the long road.”


Lopez’s path is common. Nationwide research shows truancy as an early warning sign of student trouble, dropping out, being drawn into drugs, alcohol and violence. Remigio says, “They tend to graduate into shoplifting, marijuana, and then you start to see more serious law violations.”


A 2006 study of inmates in Hawai‘i prisons found that 80 to 89 percent of inmates reported they had been truant from school.


Judges credit truancy officers as key partners at school. They point to Ocie Kuhaulua, who has worked as an education assistant for 28 years. She’s from Wai‘anae, fourth generation. She knows the families, and they know her. 

  Truancy officer

Truancy officer and education assistant Ocie Kuhaulua attends Family Court.


Now in her 60s, Kuhaulua has seen entire families stop going to school, first parents, then children and all the siblings. “Somehow it started to be a problem with no consequence,” she says. “I do home visits, I phone home, I have teachers call conferences [when] grades are affected by their attendance.” Eventually, parents end up in court.


After more than a year with the pilot program, some are breaking the cycle: “Understand that’s generations of people living that way,” she says.


Kuhaulua says some families need the court appearances every two weeks: “The other ones, they come one time and then they get it.”


Last May, she thought of another way to spread the word: the five feeder elementary schools for Wai‘anae Intermediate.  “I went to every sixth-grade class and gave the truancy introduction and what would happen—kind of a little bit scared-straight program.”


Kuhaulua says she’s encouraged with what’s happening: “The majority of them have good attendance. It’s working. Our numbers are getting better. If we start here, the positive will filter up.”


Browning cited a recent review of 30 cases of 12- and 13-year-olds sent to juvenile detention. “In every single one of those instances, there was trauma [that] began with truancy.” He adds, “Their lives and the lives they had harmed would have been so different if we had been able to intervene.”


Can the program be expanded? Potentially. But it would require more resources from partner agencies and support from the state Legislature.  Browning says it’s part of the mission of Family Court to be a place of healing: “You may be the first person who’s ever said to that kid: ‘I care for you. I won’t give up on you.’”