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Council member Catania urges harder line on truancy at D.C. schools

By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 9, 2010; B01

D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large) said Thursday that truancy is at crisis levels in the District and that parents of children skipping school need to face real consequences that might include losing their welfare benefits.

At a committee hearing, Catania said he plans to introduce legislation that would ratchet up the pressure on parents, who he believes have been let off the hook for their children's truant and delinquent behavior.

"We have been too soft for too long on this issue," said Catania, chairman of the council's Health Committee, who expects to draft a bill in the coming months.

But a leading advocate for the poor in the District said any effort to go after people's welfare benefits would do far more harm than good.

"This is a terrible idea," said Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Legal Aid Society, which helps people obtain public benefits. "Families need more support. If you want parents to be good parents, you have to give them support."

A spate of deadly shootings involving juveniles this year has fueled tough talk about accountability from Catania and from council members Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) and Phil Mendelson (D-At Large). Wells and Mendelson have been pushing to make public more information about juvenile offenders.

At Thursday's hearing on the mental health needs of children and teens in the District, Catania said too many aren't receiving the support they need from their families or from the city's social services agencies. He said the rampant truancy reflected in official statistics is a symptom of that dysfunction.

"I don't know why this is not a state of emergency," he said.

During the 2008-09 school year, more than one in five District public school students had more than 20 unexcused absences, according to statistics cited by Catania at the hearing. Among the youngest students, up to fifth grade, 8,000 had 10 or more unexcused absences, according to statistics presented at a council hearing last month.

Historically, school system attendance records have been so poor that the data from 2008-09 may understate the truancy problem. Until two years ago, students were automatically marked "present" by the school unless a specific report was received from the classroom. But only about half of the teachers consistently reported absences.

"What we've done over the last couple of years is really made sure that we have the right systems in place to gather accurate data on the attendance of our students," Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee said at a council hearing last month.

Truancy and its effect on juvenile crime are problems that the District and other jurisdictions have been grappling with for years. In 2007, Maryland enacted a law to deny driver learner's permits to teens who are truant. In Prince George's County, a group of lawmakers unsuccessfully proposed legislation that would have forced the worst truants to wear electronic monitoring devices. And this year in the District, Wells spearheaded a successful effort to require child protection officials to move more quickly to investigate unexcused absences.

Catania wants to go further, saying laws aren't tough enough or even enforced. Under D.C. law, parents can be fined for repeated unexcused absences, but they rarely are, Catania said. "People have come to know that this law won't be enforced."

Working pro bono for Catania's committee, a team of summer associates from the law firm Nixon Peabody examined how other jurisdictions have tried to deal with truancy. One of the places studied was Pima County, Ariz., which has used cuts to public benefits as a way to curb truancy. Catania cited that effort as evidence that a loss of welfare benefits is an idea worthy of serious consideration.

"We know that it works in the context of truancy," he said. But he acknowledged that any successful effort would not rely just on the threat of financial penalties. "There's no one silver bullet."

Wells, whose oversees many agencies that work with the poor, said he wasn't convinced yet that such sanctions would actually help curb juvenile crime.

"I really want to be able to show that something works and that it will actually make us safer," Wells said after the hearing. So he plans to wait to see what sort of bill emerges from Catania's office before deciding whether he will back it.

"He may come up with something I can support," Wells said.

Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.

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