Law Punishes Teen Truancy by Taking Away Drivers' Keys

By Susan DeFord
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007

It's a steady flow of would-be teen drivers who stop by the main office, eager for their paperwork to be completed so they can get behind the wheel.

But the office visited by these 15-year-olds is at Leonardtown High School in St. Mary's County, and the class attendance reports they're collecting will help determine whether they receive learner's permits from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

At schools across Maryland, educators and motor vehicle officials have teamed up to enforce a new state law that is the latest strategy to deter habitual truancy.

The measure, which took effect Oct. 1, denies a learner's permit to students younger than 16 who have more than 10 unexcused absences during the prior school semester.

Whether they are in public or private school or are home-schooled, teens must submit a certified, sealed school attendance form as part of their application. The MVA will not accept forms from students if they show evidence of tampering or alteration, agency spokesman Buel Young said. The law likely will affect thousands of teenagers, based on the fact that last budget year more than 14,500 16-year-olds received provisional driver's licenses.

A teenager must be at least 15 years, 9 nine months old before applying for a Maryland learner's permit, and the driver must hold that learner's permit for at least six months, Young said.

The measure, which borrows a strategy adopted in other states, was pushed during the past General Assembly session by a Prince George's County delegate.

Habitually truant students "face no repercussions under the law, and I thought that was a big gap," said Del. Gerron S. Levi (D), the lead sponsor of House Bill 571. "This is one way to hold students accountable."

State Del. Sue Kullen (D-Calvert) was a co-sponsor of the measure.

Truancy is a major issue for a few school systems in Maryland. More than 10 percent of Baltimore students were habitually absent in the 2005-06 school year, according to a state report.

In the Washington region, Prince George's contends with a truancy rate of 4.39 percent, the same report said. For other school districts, such as Montgomery and Howard, the percentages of truants are smaller, but the problem persists with subgroups of students.

In Southern Maryland, the truancy rates for the same period were 0.4 percent in Calvert, 0.64 percent in Charles and 1.21 percent in St. Mary's.

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