July 22, 2010 Headlight Herald
Judge Lemery an Advocate for Young People
by Laura Ruggeri | copyright 2010 Headlight Herald
TILLAMOOK - Tillamook County youth have an advocate in Judge Neal Lemery.
"I have an unusual approach, but it works," said Lemery, recently honored by the Northwest Regional Education Service District for his work with students' truancy issues.
His unusual approach involves assisting students in non-traditional ways, such as helping them enroll in classes at Tillamook Bay Community College, checking on their progress and, in some cases, simply being a good listener.
Lemery, Tillamook County's justice of the peace, regularly encounters truancy along with the court's other matters - small claims, evictions, traffic and county ordinance violations.
There are a variety of steps for officials who are involved in dealing with a student who is consistently absent from school.
First is face-to-face contact with the family of the student, followed by a mandatory meeting at the school if attendance doesn't improve, said Scott Ryon, a truancy officer with the Northwest Regional Education Service District.
It was Ryon who recommended Lemery for the service district's award.
If the student continues to be truant, a citation could be issued, Ryon said.
A citation brings families to Lemery's courtroom.
Lemery's only legal recourse is to assess a fine on the family. But that probably doesn't address the issues causing the truancy, he said.
Lemery can dismiss the fine as well. "Whatever it takes to get the kid back into school," he said.
Most of the truancy cases come in the spring, Lemery said. He estimated that he sees 50 to 75 cases a year.
Lemery said a range of factors can lead to truancy, including transportation difficulties, health, disorganization at home or a student's feelings of failure at school.
Rather than merely mete out fines, Lemery works with students and their families to find a solution.
When he thinks it will help, he visits the students' homes or to the school in search of answers.
"He really is a valued steward in the community," Ryon said. "It's nice to have that on your side."
He said that when people learn it's Lemery who will be hearing their truancy case, they're less concerned with the punishment than with disappointing him
"They say, ‘Oh, no, he'll be disappointed in me,'" Ryon said.
"People make the extra effort for him, and for themselves. He's got a special, personal style."
Sometimes, finding a solution can mean identifying a suitable alternative, such as the Tillamook Options Program, which offers special education classes. Or enrolling the student in community college classes.
"It is critical to get an education," Lemery said. "It's a family joke - ‘Don't get Neal started on his education speech.'"
At times, Lemery said, he'll take a student who has appeared before him in court to Tillamook Bay Community College so the truant can enroll in a class and get a taste of college.
One young man, he recalled, wanted to be a computer programmer but had never been to college. Lemert helped him enroll in classes.
"Neal has been a real supporter of education in this community," said TBCC President Jon Carnahan. "I think he genuinely cares about students and their education in the community. He is a mentor helping them find their way.
"The community could use a lot more people like Neal Lemery."
In an effort to be a mentor to the kids who enter his courtroom, said Lemery, he asks them about their hopes, dreams and goals. "They want to have meaningful, serious conversations," he said.
His family's roots in the Tillamook area date to the 1880s, he said. He grew up surrounded by a family that stressed the importance of education.
His father was a local doctor and Lemery heard numerous stories of poverty and of people not being able to access the things they needed, he said.
Because his family gave him little option. Lemery attended college following high school graduation, earning a bachelor's degree from Lewis and Clark College in 1975 and a law degree from Willamette University in 1979.
After law school, Lemery returned to Tillamook and specialized in juvenile law, criminal law and estate planning in his private practice.
He served as Tillamook County's district attorney from 1986 to 1991, then returned to private practice.
He was municipal judge for the cities of Cannon Beach, Astoria, Rockaway Beach, Garibaldi and Tillamook from 1991 to 2000.
Lemery was elected Tillamook County justice of the peace in 2000 and reelected in 2006. He also is the municipal judge for Cannon Beach.
"He's an extraordinarily compassionate person," said Bill Porter, the county's district attorney. "He has a lot of empathy for the troubles of others and he's driven to try and make things right."
In his courtroom, said Porter, Lemery "will sit and listen to anybody who's not screaming or threatening." Porter said.
Lemery is a member of the Tillamook Bay Community College Foundation Board of Directors and has served as a board member and board president of the Tillamook County Family YMCA. He served three terms on the Neah-Kah-Nie School District Board of Directors, for four years as its chairman.
In his spare time, Lemery plays the guitar and is working on a songwriting project. He said he's been a poet all his life, and paints in acrylics and oil.
Some of his paintings, including one of Haystack Rock, hang in the Tillamook County Justice Court.
Meantime, Lemery keeps tabs on those he's helped. He said he recently was approached in a local store by a young woman who wanted him to know she had graduated from high school.
She was the first in her family to obtain a high school degree and wanted to go on to college to become a nurse.
She was so proud, he said. "That's the reward."