By Anna Wolfe
Alison Lanthrip, a school attendance officer for Webster County, was puzzled when a particular student stopped showing up to school last year.
She wasn’t the typical student to end up on a truancy list. Lanthrip could have sent a letter to her parents and continued through the tall stack of referrals on her desk. Instead, Lanthrip visited the home in person.
When she got there, Lanthrip found that the family’s washing machine had stopped working. The student had gone through all her clean clothes.
“And she didn’t want to come to school with dirty clothes,” Lanthrip said.
Lanthrip connected the family to a local service organization who replaced the washer. “She was in school within a week,” Lanthrip said.
This is how the often overlooked Office of Compulsory School Attendance Enforcement, established to comply with state statute, should ideally function.
“Our job is to not just enforce that state law that says you have to come to school, but our job is to work with every agency to make sure that the child does have an opportunity,” said April Brewer, the school attendance officer for Lamar County.
Sitting in a courtroom after bringing a truancy case before the local county court judge, Brewer clutched the intimidating gold metal and black leather attendance officer badge hanging around her neck, as if to hide it. She says she doesn’t usually wear it on student visits. Brewer doesn’t want them to think she’s there to get anyone in trouble.
“I am there to really help and I really want them to open up because there are lots of reasons why you don’t go to school and I really want to know what the reason is,” Brewer said.
But lately, the office has been in disarray as the workers have been experiencing higher workloads and stagnant pay, according to several school attendance officers who spoke with Mississippi Today.
The Mississippi Department of Education, which oversees school attendance enforcement, has systematically understaffed the office, they said, creating unmanageable caseloads, as high as 10,000 students per officer in some counties.
“When you are basically considered a paper pusher, you can’t get in and counsel these students,” Lanthrip said. “… All you have time for is paperwork.”
Lanthrip and Brewer are part of a coalition of school attendance officers who are organizing with the help of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees workers union to lobby and introduce legislation this coming year for better conditions in their office.
Until recently, MDE hadn’t even been providing paper, ink and stamps in order to send the required letters, they said, forcing the officers to pay out of pocket for materials. Because of the conditions, there is too much turnover, contributing to the understaffing. Officers also said MDE has failed to approve their travel and mileage reimbursement, discouraging them from making home visits.
“If you’re not able to do that and get in those households like that, you don’t know what resources they need to try to help these families,” Lanthrip said.
And some haven’t received a pay raise in over a decade.
Terri Hill from Jones County has been working as a school attendance officer for 26 years. After taxes, she takes home about $28,000. She said her last raise was about 15 years ago.
“It’s ridiculous and everybody looks over us,” Hill said.
Brewer, a mom of 7, has been at the job for 11 years, but with a $30,000 salary, she’s had to consistently work two additional jobs.
The bill they drafted would raise baseline pay by about 70%, bringing the floor up from $24,500 to $41,500 – exactly the current starting pay for public school teachers in the state. The 2023 legislation does not yet have a sponsor, but they say at least four lawmakers have expressed interest.
School attendance officers must have at least a bachelor’s degree and their salaries are set in statute. After 17 years, an officer with a bachelor’s degree can earn $31,182. With a master’s degree, they can start out making $26,000 and cap out at $37,000 after 21 years. These state workers were left out of the realignments and teacher pay raises that the Legislature has passed in recent years.
Mississippi Department of Education officials denied that the department has deprived the officers of resources, but acknowledged concerns about the stagnant pay.
“We’ll keep working at it to make sure that we hear the voices of our attendance officers to try to address their needs and work alongside our districts to make sure that if there are things there that help our school attendance officers better serve students, then that is 100% what we’re focused on,” Kim Benton, interim state superintendent of education, told Mississippi Today.
Hill estimates she’s responsible for overseeing between 4,000 to 5,000 students.
“It makes you just wanna pick up your purse and clock out and go home,” Hill said. “… The workload has increased, as far as getting referrals. Like in our county, Jones County, we used to have four PIN numbers (budgeted positions) and they took one away from us, so now there’s only three of us working this county instead of four.”
At one point, there was a cap in the law that allowed for caseloads of no more than 2,500 students per attendance officer. But lawmakers removed that requirement when they rewrote the law in 1998. Now, MDE is authorized to employ a set number of 153 attendance officers. The state currently has 125 filled positions and 20 vacancies, Mississippi Department of Education told Mississippi Today.
The proposed new legislation would remove the limit on attendance officers and reinstate a student-officer ratio of no more than 2,000 students to one officer.
The officers are supposed to make contact with students after 5, 10 and 12 unexcused absences. At 12, the officer may choose to petition the court. These cases are handled differently across the state. Some counties utilize the county and youth courts while others take the cases to justice court, where the parents can face fines or even jail time in severe scenarios.
Lamar County Court Judge Brad Touchstone, a former lawmaker, said he aims to take the less punitive route and uses court hearings oftentimes to check in on the progress of students far after their initial truancy. He said school attendance officers like Brewer play a critical role in child welfare.
“They’re another layer of protection that we have out there to identify kids that are in crisis. I’ve had children come in here that, at first blush, you just think they don’t want to go to school, but then you identify there’s a lot deeper issues there, depression, a whole host of issues that we need to know about,” Touchtone said. “And we don’t always get a CPS report every time there’s a kid in crisis. So April is able to sometimes identify these kids so we can put services in the home to address the real root problem, which is not truancy. It’s that the child’s in crisis.”
Just recently, Touchstone had a case where the student on his docket brought her school-aged friend to support her during the hearing. Touchstone recognized that if the second girl was there in court during the school day, she was absent, too. The court eventually identified the girl as a runaway from a foster family and “were able to secure her and get her back where she needed to be,” Touchstone said.
Last year, one of the schools Brewer covers called her to tell her that one of the students she had been working with – “she had been doing so well,” Brewer said – had not shown up to school.
Brewer went out to the home to find that the family’s electricity had been cut off. The mom had lost her job and didn’t seek help, fearful that she would have Child Protection Services called.
“She was scared that that would make them take the children into custody. And I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘We’re here to help you. I will help you,’” Brewer said.
After some dead ends, Brewer found an agency that would pay to return power to the home.
“Now what if I didn’t go out and do the home visit?” she asked.
When kids went virtual during the pandemic, it only increased the challenges for attendance officers.
“Because of the pandemic in 2020, thousands of children across the state did not return to school resulting in an exceptionally large number of “missing children,’” the officers said in a letter to lawmakers in support of two bills during the 2022 legislative session. “SAO’s (school attendance officers) spent many hours, on top of their regular duties, to locate these children and ensure they were enrolled in school and receive an education.”
One of the bills would have raised attendance officer pay in statute, while the other would have removed the officers from MDE, placing them at the individual school districts.
Both died last session after receiving little attention. The chairmen of the house and senate education committees did not respond to Mississippi Today’s request for comment.
For Brewer, who spent her youth in foster care, the work is especially personal.
“This is not just a job to me,” Brewer said. “I come from a very rough background with foster care and everything. I learned when I was about 14 or 15 that education was my way out. I see this job as an opportunity to reach kids that were basically me.”
“I try to be for them what somebody should have been for me,” she said.