GPS Tagging Is for Wild Animals, Not Truants

By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Let's say your teenager is a habitual truant and there is nothing you can do about it. Maryland Del. Doyle L. Niemann (D-Prince George's) thinks he might have the solution: Fit the child with a Global Positioning System chip, then have police track him down.

"It allows them to get caught easier," said Niemann, who recently co-sponsored legislation in the House that would use electronic surveillance as part of a broader truancy-reduction plan. "It's going to be done unobtrusively. The chips are tiny and can be put into a hospital ID band or a necklace."

Excuse me. But that is obscene. Electronic monitoring is used by criminal court judges to keep track of felons. Researchers use them to track the movements of wild animals. Let parents use such devices if they must. But that's no way for government to treat a child.

Niemann's legislation mirrors a bill sponsored by Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's). Both would provide truants and their parents with better access to social services, such as mental health evaluations and help with schoolwork. Electronic monitoring would be a last resort. Still, the prospect of tagging children and using them in some "catch and release" hunt by police casts a pall over everything that's good about the plan.

"Obviously, we don't want to do something to make the problem worse, like stigmatizing the student," Niemann told me. "On the other hand, you may want others to know there are consequences for truancy." Sounds stigmatizing to me.

All of this is because about 6,800 Prince George's students out of 134,000 missed between 20 and 35 days of school in 2005, and an additional 5,800 missed 36 days or more. A problem? Yes. Bad enough to use an Orwellian quick fix? No way. Besides, is there no end to this fiddling with mere symptoms?

Stephanie Joseph, a member of the board of ACLU of Maryland who testified against the bill at a recent Senate committee hearing, correctly observed that "it really doesn't address truancy and its root causes." Even as Niemann and other lawmakers seek to rustle up students and herd them back to school, school officials are kicking them out by the score. More than 4,300 county students were suspended at least twice during the 2005-06 school year; 480 of them, five or more times. You can imagine what all of that confusion might look like on a GPS monitor: satellite images of dots streaming in one school door and back out through another.

Perhaps most distressing is the number of students who stay in school only until age 16, when they can legally drop out. Enrollment figures show that, during any given year, there are roughly 14,000 students in ninth grade. By 12th grade, the number drops to 8,000.

"We need to take a look at the whole system," Niemann said. "We want to know why students drop out and if we are preparing them for the world they live in. But there is a limit to what you can do."

Odd how billions and billions of dollars keep going to a war that almost nobody wants but there's never enough to fund the educational programs that nearly everybody says are needed. Aimed solely at students in Prince George's -- the only predominantly black county in the Washington area -- the truancy effort is called a "pilot program," a first-of-its-kind experiment. It would cost $400,000 to keep track of about 660 students a year.

Surely that money could be better spent. Take one example: In Montgomery County, Beall Elementary kindergarten teacher Kathleen Cohan noticed that 5-year-old children of affluent parents were entering school knowing about 13,000 English words, while children from poor and immigrant families knew as few as 500. So she and other teachers came up with a plan to close the gap. And it worked. Between 2002 and 2005, the percentage of low-income kindergartners reaching first grade soared from 44 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2005.

Now that's a pilot program. Invest in something like that and you might find more students becoming eager to attend school.

Niemann notes that the law requires students to attend school -- period -- and his proposal is aimed at getting as many as possible to go. "Where do you lodge responsibility for school attendance -- with the parent and child or society?" he asked. "If you say that the school system has to do blank this and blank that before holding parents and students accountable, that's a dead end. That's just making excuses for unacceptable behavior."

But maintaining a school system that is among the worst in the state ought to be unacceptable, too. Maybe county officials should be monitored to see why they aren't showing up for work.

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