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Keeping Kids in the Classroom
Area School Systems Tackling the Issue With a Focus on Prevention and Stronger Enforcement

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.

In Maryland, for example, the rate of public school students classified as habitually truant was an average of about 2 percent in the 2005-06 school year. Baltimore schools had the highest rate -- more than 10 percent -- followed by Prince George's schools, with slightly more than 4 percent. The habitual truancy rate for Montgomery County schools was less than 1 percent.

Figures from the Virginia Department of Education for the 2004-05 school year, the most recent available, show that Fairfax public schools, the largest system in Virginia, had 1,129 students with six or more reported unexcused absences. There were 799 such cases in Alexandria, 277 in Loudoun County, 275 in Arlington County and 247 in Prince William County.

In the District, prosecutors reported 122 cases in the 2005-06 school year in which parents or guardians were charged with failing to ensure children were attending school. That statistic underlined a point many authorities and educators make: Parents are critical to school attendance and might be held responsible if their children are truant.

Prince George's offers a case study in what school systems are doing to combat truancy.

The county has about 50 "pupil personnel workers," based in schools and regional offices; they function as truancy officers but also work on matters including immunizations and faltering academic performance.

In many schools, an automated system notifies parents when a student is absent. Otherwise, staff members will call. Interventions begin after three consecutive days of absences or after suspected truancy. The pupil personnel workers call and write to the parents, hold conferences at school, make home visits, provide counseling and, in extreme cases, refer the case to social services. Parents can also be petitioned to attend court to meet with a judge who can require them to take part in an intervention.

In the next few years, Prince George's schools Superintendent John E. Deasy seeks to have pupil personnel workers in each of the county's roughly 200 schools.

The school system has also said it is going to identify students showing signs that they might become habitually truant, such as changes in attitude, tardiness and poor sibling attendance.

Prince George's school board member Verjeana M. Jacobs (At Large) said she hopes those steps would cut back on the number of young people she saw in her other line of work -- as a division chief at the county Department of Corrections.

"The kids who are truant are the ones who are getting into trouble," she said. "Those are the kids who . . . end up hanging out with the wrong people and committing adult crimes. That's when I get them. Yeah, it's a very important issue for me."

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