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MANKATO — Blue Earth County is focusing on truancy prevention among its younger residents.

The county has hired more staff as part of its truancy intervention plans. Blue Earth County District Judge Greg Anderson has agreed to preside over all truancy cases starting this fall. And county staff believe a new program to help students not to skip school shows promise.

County Attorney Pat McDermott said the increased focus follows meetings with area school districts to cut down on the amount of kids who could face legal consequences for not going to class.

“We’re trying to hold these individuals accountable in some other way,” McDermott told the Blue Earth County Board Tuesday.

The county enacted its truancy intervention program about four years ago. Staff first targeted high school students but have since expanded to middle schoolers at school districts’ requests.

Yet the county began its current efforts in March, with what staff call the student attendance review team through Mankato Public Schools.

McDermott said the program, like many of the county’s law enforcement initiatives, is geared toward prevention and securing services whenever possible rather than punishment. Staff from McDermott’s office, along with corrections workers and school district staff, meet with students and their families once it becomes clear the student is habitually missing class.

The student enters into a voluntary contract with the county and school district and must attend weekly meetings, among other things, while county human service workers potentially follow up with that student’s family to offer services.

If all else fails, the student would then go to court for truancy. McDermott said Anderson’s agreement to oversee all Blue Earth County will provide more consistency in how the county deals with truancy.

“After all the efforts between the school district, corrections, our office, the entire system, by the time (the students) get into court, they’ll have had at least three bites at the apple,” McDermott said.

The county plans to expand the review team’s services to the Lake Crystal, Maple River and St. Clair districts through the current school year.

The board largely supported the county’s new direction, though Commissioner Colleen Landkamer expressed concerns over the county treating a student missing school to babysit his or her siblings as an unacceptable absence, meaning they could face truancy charges.

“Sometimes it’s because the parents have a child at home that the older child has to stay at their side,” Landkamer said. “... I worry about the child being penalized as opposed to (the parents).”

McDermott said his office is already dealing with similar cases, but he defended treating those students as truant as a means to potentially get help for their family without going into court.

“We’re going to follow the course and identify the true problem and get it taken care of,” McDermott said. “In its purest form, truancy is a child in need of protection or services. It just depends on where.”