Law Punishes Truancy by Taking Away Teens' Keys

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

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 Motor Vehicle Administration will not accept forms from students if there is evidence of tampering or alteration, agency spokesman Buel Young said. The law probably will affect thousands of teenagers: In the last budget year, more than 14,500 16-year-olds earned provisional driver's licenses.

A teenager must be at least 15 years, 9 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."

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 report said. For other school districts, such as Montgomery and Howard, the percentages of truants are smaller, but the problem persists among subgroups of students.

Under Maryland law, parents can face criminal charges if their children are habitually truant, but those cases are rare, educators say.

School officials who work directly with students and families say truancy is a tough knot to unravel.

"Truancy is always, in my opinion, a symptom of underlying issues, not a disorder in itself," said Howard pupil personnel worker Bob D'Angelis. "It's such a range: financial issues, mental health issues, logistical issues, substance abuse issues. It's very, very complicated."

Levi said she's concerned about what truancy can encourage.

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