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franklin county times

Supporting students’ futures

FRANKLIN LIVING MARCH-APRIL 2024

Franklin County’s district attorney took on the role a little over a year ago, and he has wasted no time establishing a new program to benefit the county’s students and families.

Jeff Barksdale was elected DA Nov. 8, 2022, following his time as assistant district attorney; previous district attorney Joey Rushing decided not to seek re-election. Barksdale said the state director of the Helping Families Initiative contacted him to gauge his interest in implementing a version of the program in Franklin County before he was even sworn in to office.
HFI is a preventative program intended to decrease the number of prosecutions of juveniles for delinquency and truancy. It functions as a partnership among a district attorney’s office, local school systems and other community partners, including social services and faith-based organizations.

“After positive discussions with the superintendents for the Franklin County and Russellville City school systems, our office applied for the funds necessary to operate a local version of the program,” Barksdale explained, noting the funding is provided entirely through an annual appropriation from the state legislature, thus not affecting any money from the local school system budgets.

“In making the decision to launch a program in Franklin County, I spoke to many other Alabama district attorneys who have had great success with their own HFI programs, and I also strongly felt that if there was funding available to assist local schools, I had a moral obligation to bring this money into our county,” Barksdale added. “We have two wonderful, well-led school systems in Franklin County, and I want the district attorney’s office to be as supportive as is possible to both as they prepare our students for the future.”

Barksdale said Alabama law requires district attorneys to “vigorously enforce” school attendance laws, adding he believes that this program, along with the “hard work of the attendance officers and others in the local school systems” has already served to reduce the number of truancy petitions his office prosecutes.

“Ultimately, since studies show that excessive absences from school place children at risk of being either the victims or the perpetrators of crimes, my hope is that we will see a noticeable reduction in adult crime rates as a result of the HFI program,” Barksdale added, explaining he appointed one of his office’s current employees, Mandy Cummings, to serve as the full-time director of the local program.

“Mandy has a real heart for the work of the HFI program, and as a former Franklin County Schools employee, she is uniquely qualified to be its director,” he said. “Mandy’s many years working at East Franklin Junior High School prior to joining the district attorney’s office in 2019 will be a great benefit to our local HFI program, not to mention the close personal relationships she has among the community partners we will be working with to help students stay out of the criminal justice system.”

Cummings said students who have “excessive absences and discipline issues” at school are more likely to commit crimes or be involved in criminal activity when they become adults. “This program isn’t just about perfect attendance or good grades, it’s about understanding and identifying the underlying reasons why students are struggling,” she added. “I have a passion for helping students reach their fullest potential and helping them make good decisions. When we started this program, I knew it was something I could pour my heart into.”

The HFI program kicks in when a student registers three or more unexcused absences. “When there’s a pattern of absences or discipline problems, there could be an underlying issue,” Cummings explained.

“The schools refer students to us that have three or more unexcused absences. We want to prevent them from being referred for ‘early warning,’ if possible, which is what happens after five unexcused absences. During the early warning process, the student and their family are required to attend a meeting at the courthouse. At this meeting, representatives from the district attorney’s and juvenile probation office, along with school officials, discuss the consequences to parents and students of further unexcused absences and provide access to community support through the HFI program.”

Franklin County assistant district attorney Fallyn Pharr said she thinks the program is going to be “great for helping kids out, to keep them from getting into the criminal justice system.”

“At the beginning of the year, Joey Rushing and I went to every school in the county, including the Russellville City Schools, and we spoke to sixth through 12th grades. I spoke to the girls, and he spoke to the boys,” Pharr said. “We talked about drugs, because that’s an issue in our schools right now, and we talked about sexting – which I know is a touchy subject, but students need to understand the potential dangers and consequences – and we introduced HFI. It took us a good two months to get to every school.”

Cummings said there are “a lot of moving parts” in the program, adding they’re “just getting started.”

“If we can prevent just one student from becoming a statistic of the criminal justice system, then it is worth it in my book,” she added.

For more information about the Helping Families Initiative, visit https://hfialabama.com.

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