Keeping Kids in the Classroom

By Nelson Hernandez,  Michael Alison Chandler  and Theola Labbé
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 30, 2007

The problem of truancy has drawn widespread attention this year, prompting some area lawmakers to call for tough measures to keep track of the most habitual offenders and leading school officials to crack down on those who constantly skip class.

In its recently concluded session, the Maryland General Assembly passed a measure that would make it possible to deny driver's licenses to students who have too many unexcused absences. Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) is expected to sign it.

During the same session, some lawmakers in Prince George's proposed strapping ankle bracelets on students to electronically monitor the whereabouts of those who constantly skip school. That bill did not advance. But the county's police announced April 11 that they had caught 425 truants in a crackdown that began in February.

At Rockville High School, officials led a crackdown of their own when they suspended 26 students after they were caught skipping class to attend a party at the house of two students whose parents were not home.

But it's not just Maryland with a problem. The District and Virginia also struggle to keep students from cutting classes.

David Rathbun, one of 15 attendance officers for Fairfax County public schools, said he handles hundreds of cases each year. "When they don't go to school," he said, "they just hang out at home. Malls are always a draw."

Rathbun said a small percentage of students leaves campus during the day. Often, those who try to walk out are stopped by school security officers.

Why do kids do it?

"One of the most common problems I hear from students is that they can't get up early enough," Rathbun said. "School starts at 7:20, and they have to be at the bus stop by 6 sometimes. Adolescents have problems with that."

Another common reason Rathbun hears: "Straight out, I don't like school."

Definitions of truancy vary. D.C. officials say any school-age child who misses at least 15 days of class without a valid excuse is truant. Maryland calls students habitually truant if they are unlawfully absent from school for 20 percent or more of school days when they have been enrolled for more than half a school year. Virginia says a student with repeated unexcused absences is a "child in need of supervision" and prescribes steps that school systems and juvenile courts should take to fix the problem.

Because of these variations, the extent of truancy troubles school administrators face is difficult to pin down.

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