Md. Moves To Tie Teens' Truancy to Licenses

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 16, 2007

Maryland lawmakers issued a tough warning to teenagers yesterday: no school, no car keys.

The House of Delegates approved a bill that would deny driver's licenses to students with 10 or more unexcused absences in the previous calendar year. A similar measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee late yesterday, and it appears to have wide support in the full chamber.

The bill would require school districts to report each case of truancy to the Motor Vehicle Administration, and the student would have to present an attendance record to the state to get a permit.

Lawmakers removed a provision that would suspend the privileges of students who have a license and are truant. Maryland does not require students to continue school after age 16, and lawmakers were concerned that denying them licenses for absenteeism might have the unintended effect of encouraging them to drop out.

"It's a first step, but this does give us a tool to use to combat truancy," Del. Gerron S. Levi (D-Prince George's), the bill's House sponsor, said after yesterday's 133 to 1 vote.

Rick Abbruzzese, spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), said the governor hasn't taken a position on the bill.

Levi said she searched for a legislative solution to a soaring truancy problem in her county, where the attendance rate last year was the state's lowest after the City of Baltimore, according to the state Department of Education. While the state punishes parents who let their children skip school -- criminal penalties can include as many as 10 days in jail or a fine of $50 a day -- there are no laws to punish the students.

More than 6,000 of 133,000 students in Prince George's public schools were absent for more than 20 days in 2005, and educators agree that number is a low estimate.

Truancy does not affect just the student, Levi said, adding that teenagers who skip school are more likely to commit daytime crimes such as home burglaries and vandalism. "This is a way to get their attention," she said. "The bottom line is it's not only an issue of missed classroom time. We've seen a surge in stolen vehicle and vandalism when kids are out of school."

Twenty-four states have enacted policies that tie student attendance or achievement to the privilege of driving. Nine states, including West Virginia and Texas, require attendance in school to receive a license. Virginia, Illinois, Oklahoma, Mississippi and Tennessee go further, requiring students younger than 18 to have a high school diploma or GED, or be regularly attending school and be in good standing, to get a license.

A more punitive proposal from Prince George's lawmakers this legislative session would have forced the worst offenders to wear ankle bracelets and other electronic monitoring systems. A pilot program in the county would have allowed the courts to issue these and other sanctions against truants. But a backlash against the measure from public defenders and civil liberties groups pushed the sponsors to withdraw it. Opponents argued that placing monitors on children would not stop truancy but rather criminalize it.

Most Maryland students will apply for learner's permits in their sophomore year of high school. The law would not penalize them for further absences after they turn 16. Under the state's graduated license program, teenagers are eligible for a provisional license -- which limits who can be in the car with them -- at 16 years 3 months, then a full license at 17 years 7 months.

"The legislation is very good," said Phil Lee, administrator of the truancy program at Largo High School. "But we still have to be careful with it. I don't want them to quit school in order to get a driver's license. A child looks toward 16, and if you take that away from them, you don't take away their desire to drive."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company