The Law School Magazine  ·  Winter 2014 : Features

Students helping students: Truancy Mediation Project makes a difference in Columbus Area Schools

By - Winter 2014
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When a juvenile has truancy issues, it may seem that legal action is the only option a school has to intervene. The student-run Truancy Mediation Project at the Moritz College of Law, however, allows parents, students, and schools to use their services as an alternative for addressing problems with attendance.

“It offers the neutral third-party a chance to reach out to the family without it being a threatening situation between school and home,” said Denise Lutz, principal of Hannah J. Ashton Middle School, part of the Reynoldsburg City School district where Moritz students mediate.

The Truancy Mediation Project, which began in 2009, is open to all Moritz students, including 1Ls, offering them the chance to gain practical experience early in their legal careers. This year, approximately 30 students have decided to become involved with the project.

Robin Reichenberger, president of the group, immediately found the organization’s opportunities as something not to overlook.

“I saw it was unique right away and jumped into it,” Reichenberger, a 2L, said.

Kayla Callahan, a 2L and social chair of the organization, became involved in the group for the same reason.

“You can get practical experience and something to put on your resume,” she said. “You can develop a skill really early on.”

Interested students must first go through a 12-hour mediation training, which occurs over the course of two days. The training is taught by Marya Kolman, director of mediation services at the Franklin County Court, and generally involves lectures and role-playing scenarios to prepare for possible truancy situations the students may encounter.

The skills developed during the training process allow the students to remain neutral third-parties during mediation cases at the school.

The Moritz students use their training to bring a standardized and disciplined approach to the mediations. “They’re very good about the techniques that they use for mediating. They’re not emotional or offering their opinion by any means,” Lutz said.

Even with practice, some cases prove to be more difficult than others, according to Reichenberger.

One instance involved a student who was the child of a deaf, single mother. To make the issue even more complex, he also had social and psychological barriers to conquer.

Despite these obstacles, the group managed to achieve a successful outcome.

“It was really difficult, but by the end we were able to come up with some agreements that worked for both parties,” Reichenberger said.

Often the biggest task for both mediators and schools is to address truancy issues early enough to make a difference. According to social worker Cathy Ely, it can be difficult to pinpoint the most effective time to begin.

“Honestly, I’m not sure what the exact right time is,” Ely said. “It may be case by case or whatever the student or family situation is. That is one of the challenges.”

Although national data on truancy rates is not available, many large cities still report high rates of truancy, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Evidence also has shown that if truancy is left unchecked, it can be a serious factor contributing to juvenile delinquency and result in negative consequences in adult years as well.

The introduction of the Truancy Mediation Project in the schools, however, can help move a child’s education in the right direction before things get out of hand.

“Often attendance issues are starting at the elementary level,” Ely said. “As the student gets older, the impact of our potential conversations lessens, because at some point it becomes a chronic issue for some students. The Truancy Mediation Project provides an additional layer to a comprehensive set of services.”

When truancy does become an issue, it can be difficult for school administrators to convince parents just how serious the matter is and that it needs to be addressed.

In Lutz’s opinion, the involvement of outside parties is what makes a difference.

“I think with the parents it adds a sense of urgency to the situation because we’re bringing in ‘official’ mediators,” she said “So it’s apparent to them that we’re formally acknowledging the problem, and it’s no longer just a letter from the school.”

Moritz students work on cases based on their own availability, but the ability to gain experience in mediation depends on the school. They can only participate as much as they are asked to contribute.

“It really is up to the school administration there how much they want to use us,” Callahan said.

For Reynoldsburg City Schools, the Truancy Mediation Project’s services are a valuable asset.

“We’re glad to have any additional resources we can get,” Ely said.

While working with the school district has been beneficial, both Reichenberger and Callahan would like to see the organization expand its presence to other public schools in Columbus and increase the number of students helped from the 10 who benefited last year. The group has already set up a new relationship with the Columbus Collegiate Academy, according to Reichenberger.

Ultimately, their goal moving forward is to make the effects of truancy mediation known to as many people as possible.

“We’d like to be active in the community and help solve a problem that really is easy to fix without having to make it become a larger issue affecting the kids, the parents, and the schools,” Callahan said. “It’s a great way for our students to get involved, and it’s also a great way for the parents, students, and teachers to find out more about each other.”

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