The 15-year-old chronic truant attacked an assistant principal and a teacher at Hine Junior High School in Southeast Washington last year, is four years below his correct grade and refuses to attend school regularly.
He stopped going to school for weeks at a time because his friends pressured him to skip school, he said.
"I missed about 80 days when I was at Hine. I was just hanging out with my friends, smoking a little reefer and beating up people and robbing them for money," he said.
He now attends school "about three days a week," and his counselor at the city's first truancy center said, "For him, that is great progress, and it has taken a lot of hard work to get him to this point."
School officials are unsure if the new $250,000 center has helped stem the city's rising truancy rate, one of the highest in the country. But even without a formal evaluation of its effectiveness, the school officials, with the blessing of Congress, plan to open two more centers in the near future.
One center is planned for Barnard Elementary School at Fifth and Decatur streets NW, and the other will be at Kramer Junior High School at 17th and Q streets SE.
For the past year, police officers, parents, counselors and teachers have brought truants to several classrooms of Stuart Junior High School in Northeast. Most of the students, about 560, were day skippers, largely teen-age boys who were experimenting with skipping school. They were picked up by the police and taken to the center.
After a lecture by a center staff member, most of them returned to school and stayed out of trouble.
But the center staff has encountered almost 200 chronic truants, students who are regularly absent from school -- sometimes for weeks or months at a time. Social workers interview these students, their parents and their friends, organize peer counseling sessions and try to motivate the youths to attend school at least two days a week.
The first center was born after Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on juvenile justice and of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District, asked school officials what was needed to reduce the 12 to 15 percent truancy rate at city junior and senior high schools, which translates into an estimated 5,000 absent students each school day. School officials answered that they needed special centers staffed by counselors and social workers.
Specter gained approval for the schools to spend $1.1 million to create a center, hire attendance aides for individual schools and buy automatic telephone calling machines designed to call parents when their children are absent.
Last September, Specter, who said he was pleased that schools had reduced the absenteeism rate by about 3 percent among teen-aged students, suggested that the schools expand their efforts and blanket the city with centers. He appropriated another $500,000 for the two more centers.
"Chronic truants are some of the most hardened and jaded kids on the streets today," said Janice Valentine, one of the truancy center's social workers. "They don't like school, and they don't have any plans for the future. They're just out there. It takes a lot of work to get them back in school.
"Most of them know what our legal limits are," she continued. "We might be able to get them to go back to school maybe two or three days a week, but according to the D.C. Code , mandatory school attendance ends when you turn 16 years old. They know that and they are quick to tell you, 'Hey, when I'm 16, I won't go to school at all.'
"You know what's going to happen to them. They are going to become statistics: poor, uneducated and unemployed," she said.
Joseph Brown, the center's director, added, "Their problems are rooted in larger socioeconomic problems affecting many poor families today."
Chronic truants are usually sent to the center by school counselors who have tried unsuccessfully to get them back in school.
The majority of the city's chronic truants are male junior high school students who are several years behind in school, have explosive tempers and belong to poor families headed by single mothers with at least two other children, school officials said.
Valentine said she and other social workers who counsel chronic truants measure their success carefully. "Realistically speaking, if we can get a former chronic truant to return to school just a couple of days out of a week, that's a success story . . . . It's a beginning."
The first-time truants are easier. "We've been able to nip those first-time absentee problems in the bud," Brown said.
Usually, first-time truants are average students enrolled in junior high school, and all it takes is a good lecture to let them know what serious trouble lies ahead for them if they keep skipping school, he said. "We do extensive follow-up to make sure they've learned their lesson. Most are not truant again."
While the Stuart center's five social workers concentrate on getting chronic truants back in school, a team of two attendance counselors and aides helps students who are picked up randomly by D.C. police patrolling the streets. The 560 truants deposited at the center by police since last March represent a low figure compared with the estimated 5,000 students absent from school each day, police officials said.
Chronic truants are referred to the center by school principals and attendance aides. Once social workers at the center receive biographical and academic records of chronic truants, they work as detectives, tracking down the chronic cases at home and developing close relationships with them.
When dealing with such students, "We do a lot of talking and reasoning with them," said Valentine, a social worker for more than 20 years. "We get their families, their friends and whomever else is involved in their lives to encourage them to go back to school and stick it out. We make a lot of home visits and try to become a part of their lives. A lot of them need discipline and monitoring. A lot of them are good kids who have gotten lost along the way. They're not being themelves, they are just following the crowd."
Before the first center was established, police picked up about 2,845 truants each year and returned them to school. About 10 percent were chronically truant, police said.
In a recent interview, a 17-year-old former truant said, "I was thinking about dropping out" of Cardozo High School after missing almost two months of class last year "hanging out with friends." Finally, a school attendance aide asked him to report to the Stuart truant center.
The 17-year-old said social workers there were able to make him "open up" and face reality. "I was ruining my life. I had problems dealing with myself and my friends," he said. "When your friends go this place and that place, that's where you go, and if you don't have anyone to talk about how to handle that, you kind of get lost in the situation. You just keep hanging out. That's peer pressure."