(MCT) — LASALLE, Ill. — The 12-year-old stood mute and motionless in his family's kitchen. It was noon on a Wednesday in late August, and once again Alejandro Frausto was not in school.
"Would you like to sit down, Alex?" asked Martha Small, a LaSalle County truancy caseworker making her first visit to the home.
Alex didn't budge. He stood with head down and arms hanging loosely by his sides, a boyish sentry in baggy red gym shorts and a black T-shirt.
Alex had already missed eight days of the new seventh-grade school year. He was absent for more than two months the previous year.
Other kids teased him about his chubbiness and the mop of unruly hair that dangles over his eyes, according to his mother. Alex denies being teased but said he fought back when provoked by classmates. School administrators accused him of erupting in bouts of anger, once even pushing a teacher. Now Alex won't go to school at all.
In a gentle but firm voice, Small reminded Alex that he must attend school. He began tapping his right thigh with his hand. His face reddened.
Small said quietly, "Don't panic, Alex."
As Small turned to speak with Alex's mother, Carmen Frausto, the boy whispered to a reporter about the anxiety he feels in class.
"I can't stand it in there. It's like four walls closing in," he said.
At age 12, Alex stands at a crossroads. When boys vanish from school in the elementary grades, grim fates often await: juvenile detention homes, state prisons. It happened to one of his older brothers.
But in this predominantly rural county, where the child poverty rate nearly doubled from 2008 to 2009, authorities are pouring resources into saving Alex and other kids like him.
"Nobody is giving up on a 12-year-old," said Small, a 53-year-old woman with steady brown eyes.
Truancy officers no longer exist in Chicago, even though thousands of children in grades K-8 miss months of class each year or drop off the enrollment lists altogether. But spending time alongside Small and other "outreach workers," as they're now often called, shows the vital role these front-line child advocates can play in bringing detached youths back to school.
Starting with Small's initial home visit Aug. 29, Alex and his family allowed Tribune reporters to follow his case as it came to involve school officials, mental health experts, law enforcement authorities and the courts.
The youngest of seven children, Alex was born 15 years after his nearest sibling, when his mother was 42.
As a younger boy, he had no truancy or misconduct problems, his family said. Alex's mother described him as a sensitive, intuitive child who loved to read, romp on the baseball diamond with cousins and chat as she puttered around the house. His fourth-grade report card shows an A, two B's and a C, with four missed classroom days.
But in sixth grade, Alex started getting into fights with other students. He missed months of school because of suspensions and his refusal to get on the bus.
"They start to get at me," Alex said. "That's when I get angry, and don't allow it, and get mad. I've just had enough, and if somebody gets in my way, I'll deal with it."
At the start of seventh grade, officials enrolled Alex in the LaSalle County Regional Safe School, an alternative setting for students with behavioral problems. But as his isolation and anxiety about school built, he stayed home more often, playing "Call of Duty" on his Xbox, watching the History Channel on TV or pacing the floor with the metalcore band Asking Alexandria thundering through his ear buds.
His parents fretted, but they felt helpless to force Alex to venture outside the house.
Hard to reach
Alex's soft-spoken father, Javier Frausto, pleads with Alex to go to school, but he isn't around to make sure that happens.
Frausto leaves the house before 5:30 a.m. to commute to a job as a backhoe operator for a railroad freight company in Chicago. Often he doesn't return until well past 8 at night.
"I'm out working," Frausto said. "It's hard for me. I'm thinking about him."
Alex's mother dropped out of school in seventh grade, when she was 15 and pregnant with the first of the couple's children. She describes herself as burdened by weight gain and depression. As her happy toddler grew into an introverted and difficult-to-reach adolescent, she often was confined to her chair in the dining room.
"He's a big boy, and he knows I cannot grab his arm because I use both my canes to walk," she said about Alex. "I don't know what to do."
Two of Alex's sisters have finished high school, but a third sister and all three of his brothers dropped out. One of the brothers, who is serving a four-year prison sentence for drug dealing, has completed a GED. He had served time in the county detention home for truancy starting at age 11, more than a decade ago, when such punitive sentences were routine.
Households like this one — with a distraught mom, a largely absent dad and a preteen whose future seems to be imploding — are the target of truancy officer Small's painstaking interventions.
On most days, Small zips from home to home and school to school in her own vehicle, a van with rust patches and 291,000 miles on the odometer.
Blending the instincts of a social worker, cop and family counselor, she crafts simple fixes — like bringing a cheap alarm clock to a home — or weaves together complex services and strategies for families plagued by substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness.
Difficult cases like Alex's might take months or even years to resolve.
But Alex is smart, testing at grade level despite all the classroom days he's missed. And he has another huge advantage: an intact family that clearly loves him.
Taking notes as she sat in the Fraustos' dining room, Small gently but strategically tried to pick apart the troubling case. Has Alex seen a psychologist? Is he on medication? Will his father really be able to devote more time to the boy when he retires next year?
What's keeping him from school, and how can she support the family to get him back?
"I want to help him, but I can't," Carmen Frausto said, tears suddenly streaming down her face.
Small inched a little closer to the mother.
"You are helping him," she said. "We are probably going to have to come up with something creative."
Small ended that initial face-to-face meeting on a businesslike note of optimism and resolve.
"We've got to get him healthy," the veteran truancy officer told Carmen. Then she turned to Alex.
"You're expected to be in school," Small said.
But that didn't happen, and three weeks later, on Sept. 19, Small convened a 90-minute "truancy hearing" that brought Alex and his family together with his teachers, as well as local and regional school authorities.
Sitting on plastic chairs in a school meeting room, they crafted a transition plan to ease Alex back into classes starting with just a few hours a day.
"I think I can do it," Alex said at the end of the hearing.
A court order
Alex did go to school the next morning. But not the next day, or the next.
A week later, Small referred the case to the LaSalle County state's attorney's office, which filed a juvenile court petition that can enable a judge to order counseling or other supportive services for a truant youth and his family, as well as fines and other sanctions.
It was the eighth such truancy case sent to local prosecutors since January, all of them middle-schoolers, according to prosecutor Vicki Denny. The court intervention doesn't always work, but in most cases "it does hit home," Denny said.
On Oct. 23, Alex and his parents sat before Judge Daniel Bute. With law books and the state seal gracing the wood-paneled courtroom walls behind him, Bute gazed down on the shaggy-haired 12-year-old.
"Alejandro! Pay attention," Bute began. "We find that you are a truant. ... Here's how this works in my courtroom."
Alex was either going to return to his current school, Bute said, "or you are going to school in the detention home. We have a great teacher there."
Bute asked if Alex had any questions, but the boy was silent, his head bent toward his folded hands.
"Just so we understand each other, you're going to school one way or the other."
In minutes, the hearing was over. In the lobby afterward, Alex's mother seemed breathless and stunned as she studied the two-page court order with Bute's signature.
Small rushed over to the family. "Are you ready to do this?" she asked Alex. He didn't answer.
She said he could earn a small iTunes gift card if he went to school every day that week.
"I will take the bus," Alex said quietly.
"That shows maturity — that shows you are stepping up now," Small said. "Because, trust me, today is the day you've got to step up."
Carmen Frausto began to sob.
"All of us," Small said. "Now is the time to step up."
Frausto wiped her eyes and asked if they had to take Alex to school immediately. Small nodded.
Alex made it through the afternoon at school, and he got on the bus the next morning.
But at a security checkpoint on his first full day back, Alex refused to remove his hoodie, walked out and punched the school wall.
School authorities called police, and Alex ended up at a psychiatric ward in Peoria. He was there for five days.
The episode led to a diagnosis — anxiety disorder, panic disorder and depression — and a regime of medications. His mental health made it "very difficult for him to attend school," a letter from his psychiatrist said.
Yet "it is to Alex's best interest to remain in school despite his severe anxiety of being around other people," the letter continued. "To allow him to be homeschooled will ... perpetuate his avoidant behaviors."
The doctors recommended accommodations for Alex, such as providing an alternative work space if the classroom felt loud and overwhelming, or even the use of noise-canceling headphones.
And so in early November, Alex was once again preparing to return to class.
Puttering with two computers in his family's dining room, he worried out loud that he was three months behind on his schoolwork, didn't have friends and couldn't stay focused.
"I get distracted unless I have my music," he said.
"They have to help you," his mother chimed in.
"That's what they said before," Alex responded. "I'll go, but it's not going to be pretty when I get there."
Alex did make it to school the next day and worked comfortably, with school officials accommodating his occasional need to pace when he got anxious.
The next day, he was on the bus again — and he hasn't missed a day since.