Electronic Monitoring Proposed in Bill on Pr. George's Truants

By Ovetta Wiggins and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 10, 2007

Prince George's County lawmakers are seeking to address what they say is a growing school truancy problem by backing a bill that could force the worst offenders to submit to electronic monitoring such as ankle bracelets.

Half of the county's senators have signed on to the bill, which would set up a pilot program in Prince George's that would permit the courts to issue the sanctions against students who have skipped school. Both State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) and County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) have endorsed the concept.

With more than 6,000 students absent for more than 20 days of school in 2005, lawmakers, educators, judges and lawyers agree that truancy is one of the toughest issues facing the school system.

"The idea is to give us some leverage to deal with kids who thumb their noses at the schools and at their parents," Ivey said.

But public defenders and members of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland argue that placing an electronic monitor on a child does not address truancy; it criminalizes it.

Children younger than 16 are required to attend school. Under current law, if a child doesn't go to school, the parent could be charged with a criminal offense. The penalties can include up to 10 days in jail or a fine of $50 a day.

Proponents of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's), say the concept recognizes that parents often are at a loss to control a truant child and that some of the responsibility should be placed on the child.

"It doesn't make sense to prosecute parents when they can't do anything about it," said Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's), who has co-sponsored a companion bill in the House. "The goal is to be able to have some control over the child where the parent doesn't have control."

Ivey and Johnson view the three-year pilot program, which would run through 2010, as a way not only to curb truancy but also to prevent crime.

Niemann introduced the bill as a statewide measure last year, and a House committee recommended he resubmit it this year as a Prince George's-only measure. The level of support among the county's House delegation is unclear, but it is being co-sponsored by half of the county's eight senators. Passage by both delegations could virtually ensure passage by the legislature.

The ACLU of Maryland recently testified against the bill at a Senate committee hearing, saying that it "jeopardizes the rights of children and parents."

"It doesn't really address truancy and its root causes," said Stephanie Joseph, a member of the group's board of directors.

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