CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rampant truancy is "destroying our state," Circuit Judge Alan Moats told lawmakers Monday.
Moats, the 19th circuit's chief justice, and state Supreme Court Justice Robin Jean Davis spoke at an interim meeting of the Legislature's joint education committee. The pair has spent recent months traveling the state talking to school officials and judges about the best ways to fight truancy.
West Virginia students can only miss five days of school without a proper excuse before being considered truant. At that point, parents receive a letter from the school system. School systems can file a criminal complaint on the parents if the child continues to rack up unexcused absences.
"What we are doing is working," Moats said.
He said in 2008, 56 percent of Barbour County students had 10 or more unexcused absences. By the end of the 2011-2012 school year, only 8 percent of students had that many unexcused absences.
But existing truancy prevention measures are not working fast enough.
Moats said four decades ago, the United States had the world's highest high school graduation rate. In 2011, the U.S. ranked 19th. The country has since fallen two more places to 21st.
"That has dire consequences for the future of our country," he said.
West Virginia is no exception to the trend. Moats said in his circuit, about 25 percent of Taylor County students drop out. More than one in five students in Barbour County drops out of school.
Though students cannot legally quit school until they are 17, he said many start heading that direction years earlier.
"Dropping out of school happens, many times, in the first grade," he said.
Moats said much of the blame can be placed on parents: a kindergartener can't get herself out of bed and onto the school bus, so it's not her fault if she doesn't attend school.