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Class Notes May 2004: Volume 1, Number 2

Truant Judge
Joan L. Byer, '78


Juvenile delinquency is one of the major problems that Family Court Judge Joan L. Byer, 78, confronts daily in her Louisville, Kentucky courtroom. And 95 percent of juvenile delinquents have had a truancy problem. This doesnt just affect school kids, Byer says. All of us wind up paying for the high costs associated with policing and supporting those former school truants, who eventually wind up in the jails or unable to earn a living.”

Those bleak facts drove the 49-year-old jurist to create one of the first and most innovative “truancy court diversion” programs in the United States. Her “intervention model” has worked successfully to help hundreds of Kentucky school truants find their way back to the classroom. “School truancy is often a red flag for problems in the home— including domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and poverty,” says Byer, who connects these children with vital social services, rather than simply processing them through the crowded juvenile justice system.

Funded in part by the American Bar Association, Judge Byer’s program has won kudos among juvenile justice professionals. And last April the National Truancy Prevention Association (NTPA) selected her to be its next chief executive. She will serve a two-year term.

A frequent lecturer on juvenile justice and school truancy, Byer says her volunteer work is based on “a humanistic outlook” she began to develop while comparing Russian and American novelists as a UCSD undergrad during the mid-1970s. An Ohio native, she grew up in the Los Angeles area and earned a law degree at the city’s Loyola Marymount University in 1981. Byer followed her husband, a peripatetic General Electric executive, to Louisville in the early 1980s and discovered she enjoyed living in the gracious “Old South” capital of bluegrass music, mint juleps and thoroughbred racing. After a stint as a local county prosecutor and several years of private law practice, Byer was appointed a Louisville family court judge in 1996.

“School truancy is a crisis in America today,” says the judicial activist, “and all of us have a moral obligation to ensure that our kids receive a good education. For me, that obligation means I have to serve my community as well as I can—above and beyond merely sitting on the bench.”

Tom Nugent

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"School truancy is often a red flag for problems in the home— including domestic violence, substance abuse, mental health issues and poverty."