Two truant teenagers from Wicomico County on the lower Eastern Shore, one of whom had seen the inside of a classroom only one day this school year, reported to court this week as the first defendants in a pilot program that will hold students directly responsible for finding their way to class every day.
The Truancy Reduction Pilot Program is slated for expansion to three other Eastern Shore counties when funding is available and, if it works, perhaps to the rest of Maryland one day.
It brings to the state a concept developed in Delaware during the past nine years. The idea is to unite the agencies involved in the fight against truancy -- the school system, social services and the courts -- in a legal proceeding that can quickly solve whatever problems are keeping a child from school.
Under the Maryland program, the court will hear truancy cases twice a month. Students found to be truant may be ordered into counseling or testing, ordered to keep a curfew, confined to home, even commanded to take a drug test on the spot. A judge or master may refer the entire family to a social services program for home study, counseling and testing. Families are required to return every two weeks, or as necessary, for a checkup.
The two students taken to court this week, ages 14 and 15, were found to be truant; Bruce Wade, a master who heard the cases Monday, ordered assessments and told the teenagers to return to court Jan. 24 for further instructions.
He also ordered them back to school. And that's where they were yesterday.
A 2004 revision to Maryland law allows the Wicomico school district to file civil complaints against children who fail to attend school. A child who ignores court orders can be found in civil contempt and detained. Parents already faced fines and jail time under a law that makes it a misdemeanor to keep a child from school. Both options are seen as last resorts.
"The goal is not to use the hammer unless you absolutely have to, but to show them the hammer and say it's there," said Wendy Riley, a Wicomico Circuit Court administrator.
School systems in the region began looking at truancy as a serious problem in the 1990s, amid a national discussion linking chronic school absence to crime, gang membership, unemployment and other social ills. The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which calls for steady improvements in high school graduation rates, among other goals, may provide another incentive to attack truancy.
Wicomico County adopted the truancy program because "we felt that our county's attendance rate was lower than most of the surrounding counties," said Charlene C. Boston, superintendent of schools, who helped develop the pilot for the 14,300-student district. "We were dealing with a group of children who weren't going to school, and their parents couldn't make them go to school."
The attendance rate in Wicomico high schools was 91.6 percent in 2003-04, mirroring the state average. The attendance rate for middle schools was 92.1 percent for the county, 93.4 percent for the state.
The pilot program works on two tracks. A school official may file a civil petition concerning any student 12 or older for chronic failure to attend school.
When students are younger than 12, truancy officers must first pursue criminal charges against the parents. If the parents can prove in court that they are making every effort to send the child to school, then the focus can shift to the child for failing to attend school.