D.C.’s ‘truancy crisis’? More like business as usual

November 16, 2012

Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson said this month that there is a “truancy crisis” in D.C. Public Schools, as if the problem were new and suddenly needs to be dealt with. Unfortunately, this crisis has been with us for many years, dating back to the Anthony Williams administration. At Superior Court, we have seen the tragic results of truant behavior — crime, delinquency, substance abuse and recidivism — for just as long. No, there is nothing new about this problem. If there is a true desire to conquer it, let’s not act as though it just appeared.

Several years ago, while Adrian Fenty was mayor and after I became chief judge of D.C. Superior Court, I met with Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle Rhee, and others to offer to restart a truancy diversion program involving judges, community groups, principals, school attendance counselors and mental health professionals.

The earlier program had been sponsored by the Citywide Truancy Taskforce, which had been chaired by me, as presiding judge of Family Court, and D.C. Council member Tommy Wells, then on the Board of Education. It was held in two middle schools, including Garnet-Patterson in Shaw, where I was the participating judge.

The students and parents who took part were selected over the summer for the fall semester and over the holiday break for the spring semester. Judges volunteered to attend the chosen schools between 8 and 9 a.m. one day a week. The goal of the program was to reach students and parents who had documented truancy issues before they were referred to court. It ended when the task force was disbanded by Fenty.

Rhee politely rejected our offer, arguing that teacher engagement was the best way to reduce truancy. Her thinking was that if students are engaged by teachers they will stay in school; if they are not, they won’t. The flaw in that approach, however, was that more than a fifth of students were already chronically late or absent. Students need to first attend school before they can be entranced by the engagement skills of teachers.

In 2011, Mayor Vincent C. Gray recognized that truancy had to be addressed, and the citywide task force was resurrected. Family Court Presiding Judge Zoe Bush approached Henderson and DCPS officials with the idea of creating a middle school truancy diversion program, identical to the one disbanded around 2009. To her credit, Henderson did not give us the polite “no,” as Rhee did, but agreed to programs in two middle schools. Unfortunately, school officials dragged their feet for so long that by the time the programs were approved, half of the school year was over, dramatically reducing what could be accomplished. In fact, the court also almost backed out after one school official told Bush that judges should not be in schools. What does it say about DCPS that it does not want young people to interact with a judge outside of a courtroom? Isn’t school a better place for kids to see a judge?

Fortunately, through the pressure of Bush and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), the program is now up and running. Although there was a late start this year due to lack of access to DCPS records over the summer, crucial to identifying chronically truant students, I’m happy to say that we have six judges in six D.C. schools.

I have often wondered why a school system stuck in a truancy crisis would continue — through its top leadership — to reject offers of help from other institutions and community groups, especially when it would cost the schools so little to say yes. More recently I have begun to wonder whether DCPS does not want truants back in class to take federally mandated standardized tests because — let’s face it — until these students catch up academically, they will pull average scores down.

We need a radical approach. It doesn’t have to be truancy programs run by judges, but it sure as heck isn’t more of the same talk. There may be other legitimate programs that could help our kids, but they have not been identified.

In the 2003-04 school year, the District reported 20,845 chronic truants and a 23.5 percent overall truancy rate — five times the national average. In 2010, the rate was still 20 percent. We have been in a truancy crisis for many years. Thanks to the pressure that Mendelson and fellow council member David Catania (I) are putting on DCPS through their repeated roundtables, the crisis may no longer continue to slide from one administration to the next. That’s a start. Our children deserve a lot more.

The writer is chief judge of the Superior Court of the District of Columbia.

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