Since September, Sousa Junior High School has been in session about 144 days, and Donnell Robinson has been marked absent more than 80 of them, according to his principal.
The seventh grader, who had a C-plus average earlier this year and says he likes learning and hopes to be a policeman, spent those days "hanging out" or playing hide-and-seek with friends.
At 14, Donnell is showing patterns of truancy that, according to D.C. school officials, almost inevitably turn students into dropout statistics by age 16.
About 10,000 D.C. students stay out of school each day, putting the city's absentee rate at 12 percent, among the highest in the nation, according to Marilyn Brown, assistant superintendent for student services.
About 32 percent of the city's high school students drop out each year, resulting in considerable numbers of youths in the District who are undereducated and unskilled.
Administrators said that more than 20 percent of the truant youths and those who drop out each year have borderline learning disabilities, like Donnell, who is enrolled in a special education program at Sousa.
Some truants are casual class-cutters, who may miss fewer than a half-dozen school days each year to go shopping or take advantage of a nice day. But many, like Donnell, are chronic truants who skip school because they feel alienated.
He said of his many absences: "I don't like my teachers or the principal . . . . I want to get transferred to another school."
Lily Mae Robinson said her son Donnell's absences from school are connected to his lack of discipline and his refusal to obey her. She said she did not know that he was missing school until recently, when school officials launched a new antitruancy program aimed at notifying parents by telephone when their children do not show up for classes.
"He leaves the house whenever he wants to," said his mother, an unemployed single parent who lives in a Southeast public housing development. "I wake him up about 7:30 in the morning, but he just doesn't want to go to school. He leaves the house, but I don't know where he goes."
She said Donnell's disobedience began a few years ago when he started hanging out with older boys in his neighborhood. He gradually took up mischievous behavior, she said, and now "is always fighting and sassing the teachers. Lately, he's really been sassing me."
It is illegal for youths 16 or younger to play hooky, assistant superintendent Brown said. But for many years educators considered truancy a petty offense that was committed primarily by thrill-seeking youths, she said. Now, they know that truancy is often a symptom of deeper, more serious problems connected with poverty, drug abuse, child abuse or inadequate parental guidance, she said.
"Underlying the problem of truancy are tough societal problems that the schools cannot effectively address without coordinated help from other city agencies," said James Williams, principal of Cardozo High School.
With drug abuse, alcoholism, violent crimes and suicide on the rise among teen-agers, truancy is now seen as a "red flag" or indicator that students are undergoing some sort of crisis, said Williams, who initiated a pilot antitruancy program last year.
"We've found that the same kids who are absent from school regularly are the same ones who are getting into trouble with the law, abusing drugs and whose families are struggling financially," Williams said. "A lot of teen-age mothers have repeatedly shown up on our absentee lists. So, what we see is a cycle of problems that some of our students are going through, and truancy is just one symptom of those problems."
School and police officials who are familiar with the years-long problem of truancy said most chronic truants are teen-agers in junior or senior high school who miss 14 or more days during a 45-day period. Most are youths from low-income, single-parent households and lack motivation. Other longtime truants have been victims of child abuse and neglect.
"Truancy is a tip of an iceberg a heck of a lot of times," said Becky Hazlett, coordinator of a truancy program that puts D.C. police cruisers on the streets during school hours to pick up youths. "When we talk to the students, we find that there is a lot going on that should have come to someone's attention a long time ago."
With a $1.3 million appropriation from Congress, D.C. officials recently launched a three-tier program designed to "catch" casual truants and give chronic ones intensive counseling.
Believing that most parents will reprimand their children if they know when the youths have skipped school, school officials bought 78 computerized telephone-dialing machines that are supposed to contact thousands of parents each day, mostly in the evenings, after their children have been marked absent.
Dialing machines at several schools, including Sousa, have not been installed yet, school administrators said.
For the most difficult cases of truancy, 17 attendance counselors were hired and assigned to the city's 10 comprehensive high schools and seven career centers. Those students who show little or no improvement in their attendance will be sent to a truant center at Stuart Junior High School, Fourth and E streets NE, that is staffed by five social workers.
Brown expressed high hopes that the dialing machines, which cost about $352,000, will have a significant impact on the problem. But, in some instances, the computers have already failed. Some students have learned how to outsmart the computers, said Williams, who used dialing machines as part of the Cardozo pilot program.
At Cardozo, he said, calls are made to the homes of about 160 truant students each day. But fewer than 40 calls are completed because most of the telephone numbers are either wrong or not operative.
"The machines are not going to solve the problem. Students often give us the wrong telephone number and addresses. We've called places that we thought were students' homes, but actually were liquor stores and restaurants," Williams said. When a machine calls a student's home, a parent may not answer. Sometimes, the student answers and hangs up and tells his parents that the call was a wrong number, Williams said.
More than 55 city schools suspend students for repeated absences -- a practice that Williams and others consider counterproductive. The best way to attack the truancy problem is to work aggressively with youths and parents with an eye toward helping students change their behavior, Williams said.
But often the behavior of parents needs to change as well, he said. "We've found that a lot of parents make their children miss school," Williams said. "Many parents are not educated about education. Some really don't understand the importance of sending their children to school every day, and on time."
Williams said, "They may keep them out of school to run errands or baby-sit. Many parents are young and inexperienced and they haven't taught their children discipline. It's impossible to change behavior in teen-agers when they've been accustomed to a different type of behavior all their lives."
In the past three years, the absentee rate among D.C. junior and senior high schools has been recorded at 15, 14 and 12 percent, according to school officials.
The social workers at the truancy center are supposed to help establish "personal contact" with hundreds of chronically truant students and their parents. They are expected to interview them and solicit assistance from various social service organizations. The center, however, cannot handle more than 80 students at a time or 14 students per social worker, officials said.
"We've got a big job ahead of us, but I believe we will be able to reduce truancy considerably," said one counselor, Doretha Carroll, who is assigned to Cardozo.
Some officials are not as optimistic. Police Officer Hazlett said, "Some of these youngsters are just too far gone. They see more logic in staying out of school, doing what they want to do. A lot of them have turned to hustling and selling drugs, and they're making lots of money at it. Unfortunately, we just can't reach many of them."