Chicago officials have shunned any anti-truancy measures that could be considered punitive — from imposing fines on parents to reducing their public aid and housing benefits. City officials say they fear such measures would hurt struggling families.

But Michigan schools refer parents of children with 10 or more unexcused absences to prosecutors for educational neglect, a misdemeanor that carries a penalty of up to 90 days in jail.

Chief Wayne County juvenile prosecutor Robert Heimbuch said that before filing charges, his office participates in schoolhouse meetings with the families and school officials who can offer services and interventions. If the children return to school during the next three weeks, no charges are filed.

"More often than not, we end up finding out that there is an issue that is correctable," said Heimbuch, whose office last year resolved about 300 of the total 400 elementary grade cases at those initial meetings. "We want to prevent prosecution," he added.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder made elementary truancy a top priority this year, saying the missed classroom days fueled patterns of crime and welfare dependency that cycled through generations.

Because the state's cash-strapped schools can't hire new truancy officers, Snyder is placing state Department of Human Services social workers in the elementary schools of Detroit and three other blighted urban centers. By next year, caseworkers will be stationed in nearly every elementary school in those four districts, department spokesman David Akerly said.

"They have a desk at the school, but their office is their iPhone," Akerly said. "This is reallocating resources, not us opening a pile of money or a line-item."

In addition, under a new Michigan rule, parents can lose welfare cash benefits if their child has 10 or more unexcused absences in a year. The benefits are reinstated if the child returns to school for three consecutive weeks. Districts in Alaska and Georgia have similar policies.

Critics of Michigan's rule say entire families could lose the cash assistance if only one child is truant — even though other siblings may have perfect attendance records. Akerly said no families have yet faced a public aid cash assistance cutoff.

"Bottom line," he said, "we're hoping it's prevention."

dyjackson@tribune.com

gmarx@tribune.com