Breaking the Habit

Thursday, March 8, 2007

NOW THAT the silly discussion about whether to slap electronic monitors on students who skip school in Prince George's County is over, attention can be paid to the serious and long-neglected problem of truancy. Students who are habitually absent tend to drop out of school and often end up in trouble. Prince George's has Maryland's second-highest number of students regularly missing school, and it's time to get them back into the classroom.

Numerous bills addressing truancy have been introduced this year in the General Assembly. Getting the most attention was the measure, since withdrawn, that would have allowed the use of electronic monitoring in certain situations. We understand why some would object to this, particularly since Prince George's students were being singled out. Still, it's unfortunate that controversy about one line of a bill taken out of context has so far obscured the debate.

Two schools of thought are emerging from the legislative proposals. One seeks to increase school attendance by setting up a system that identifies students at risk and provides counseling and remedial work. Also involved would be public-private partnerships to provide incentives to schools and students for good attendance. The other approach would involve the justice system in providing control and supervision in difficult cases by setting up a truancy court. Parents now can be held liable when their children miss school, but the courts have taken a hands-off attitude regarding students -- until, of course, they get into criminal trouble.

We don't see why this has to be an either/or situation. Both approaches have merit. Proactive measures heading off truancy have been successful in other parts of the country and are cost-effective, particularly considering the long-term costs of students' failure to graduate. On the other hand, there are likely to be hard-core cases in which other methods are needed. Think here of the parent who has tried everything to deal with a defiant child and is desperate for help.

The Prince George's school system has identified combating truancy as a top priority. To its credit, the school system is not waiting for Annapolis to act. It has set a goal of increasing attendance by 5 percent over the next three to five years and is hiring extra personnel to work with students and parents. And we hope that Superintendent John E. Deasy's plan to re-create high schools goes a long way toward making students want to stay in school.

Children become truant for many reasons, from problems at home to performance trouble at school. The more tools the county has to work with, the better the chance of something sticking.

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