Sidnee Pavel knows all about the issues teenagers face.
She’s a single mother whose own parents divorced when she was 10.
She was bullied in school and battled depression, then turned to tattoos as a way to mask that pain.
Her arms, back, neck and legs are covered in ink now, giving her an appearance most don’t envision when they think about an authority figure.
That’s part of what makes her so good at her job as a school truancy/diversion officer.
The 23-year-old knows how to connect with students going through tough times.
She’s been where they are — not all that long ago — and understands high school can be rough.
Over the past three-plus years, she’s been the link between students at Schuyler Community Schools, administrators, counselors and other staff members there and outside agencies such as the county attorney’s office, probation and law enforcement.
In the simplest terms, her job is to ensure students make it to school and stay out of trouble.
But there’s a whole lot of complexity to that process.
“It’s not just going and getting children who are sleeping in bed,” said Colfax County Attorney Denise Kracl, who applied for the state grant that funds Pavel’s position.
The money, which comes from the Nebraska Crime Commission, is awarded to programs that focus on keeping kids in the classroom and out of the courtroom.
Pavel doesn’t just track absences, scold students who frequently miss class and contact their parents. She works with families to eliminate the barriers that keep students out of school.
“When we first started the program we were so focused on the whats, but now we’ve shifted to the whys and how we can help,” Pavel said.
And there are plenty of whys to consider.
At Schuyler Central High School, where Pavel’s office is located, the students come from many cultural backgrounds, with nearly 20 different languages spoken there.
Families arrive in Schuyler straight from developing nations and refugee camps, where life is far from the norm most Nebraskans are accustomed to.
Pavel, who has certifications in areas such as youth mental health, human trafficking and drug training, works with struggling students and their families to resolve issues that occur both inside and outside the school walls.
The goal, Pavel said, is to get a 360-degree view of a student’s life and develop a complete picture of the obstacles they face, then find services to assist them.
This can be as simple as lining up child care for a teenage mother or buying an alarm clock for a student who’s often tardy.
“We’ve done that,” Kracl said.
There’s also a “community closet” at SCHS that provides students with personal hygiene products and other basic necessities.
The closet started with Pavel buying the items with her own money or asking for donations, then expanded using funding contributed by the county to match the state grant.
Items like deodorant, laundry detergent or a toothbrush may not seem like a big deal to some, but personal hygiene and appearance can easily impact a teenager’s willingness to go to school.
“I gave a hairbrush to a young girl and she started crying,” said Pavel, who recently lined up dress clothes for a high schooler so they could participate in speech.
Other issues are more complicated.
Some students with working parents care for their siblings or hold full-time jobs themselves to help support the family. Others face abuse at home.
“Our students go to school for seven to eight hours a day, and for many of them that’s the safety, most-stable place that they’re going to have,” Kracl said.
Pavel’s connection with the county attorney, probation, law enforcement and school counselors helps address problems that extend beyond absences.
Amy Johnson, one of two counselors at SCHS, said there are advantages to having a truancy/diversion officer in the building, especially one students connect with so easily.
“Having her right there makes her more accessible for the students and their parents,” Johnson said. “I think that maybe is less-threatening to the family.”
It also allows district officials to address issues immediately, she said, and craft policies that better fit the school’s needs.
“I think that’s made a difference,” Johnson said.
The Juvenile Justice Institute, created in 2002 as the research branch of the state juvenile justice system, agrees.
It highlighted Colfax and two other counties for low recidivism rates within their juvenile diversion programs and recognized Pavel’s contributions as an intervention specialist focused on a multitude of areas.
Of the 100 or so students she works with each year, only about 25 are tied to truancy. The rest of the time she’s providing intervention services aimed at addressing issues before they become major problems.
Pavel, who works with both high school and middle school students, also conducted her own analysis of the absence numbers at SCHS and found a decline over the past three years.
“The earlier we can reach students, the better off we are,” said Kracl, who’d like to see the state funding guidelines expanded beyond youths ages 12-18.
The Juvenile Justice Institute also identified the partnership between Colfax County and Schuyler Community Schools as a model program worth duplicating across the state.
But there’s one major obstacle to that plan.
“The problem is we can’t replicate Sidnee, so it makes it harder for us to replicate the program in other places,” Kracl said.