The Prince William County school system, saddled with one of the highest truancy rates in Northern Virginia, has launched a pilot program with police and social service agencies aimed at getting students back in school.
The Truancy Interdiction Program, which started May 12 and ends June 12, is taking place at five schools: Gar-Field, Potomac and Stonewall Jackson high schools and Godwin and Stonewall middle schools. Police patrolling in those schools' attendance boundaries have increased their efforts to pick up students and return them to class.
Lt. John Collier, of the Prince William Police Department's juvenile bureau, said that officers have always had the authority to pick up truants but that they were reluctant to deal with students who might have a legitimate reason for being out of class, such as a suspension or a job related to a school program.
In the new anti-truancy effort, police officers are calling a school staff member as soon as they find a student out of school so that they can learn quickly where the youth is supposed to be.
In addition, police are forwarding truants' names to the county's Department of Social Services and Department of Community Services. Those agencies will get involved if the student has family problems or other difficulties that prevent regular school attendance. Juvenile court officials are also keeping tabs on students with criminal records.
Police said they don't have statistics yet on how many students from those five schools have been picked up since the crackdown started. But police and school officials said they hope that by tackling the problem from several angles they will decrease truancy rates.
The school system and police plan to analyze the results of the month-long pilot program this summer. If it is deemed a success, the program will expand to more schools in the next academic year, Superintendent Edward L. Kelly said. School Board members were briefed on the effort last week.
"It's very clear that if youngsters are not in school, they're not going to learn," Kelly said. "Next year is when we hope we're really going to see some results."
The truancy issue was highlighted this year when the state released attendance figures as part of the school-by-school report cards that were mailed home to every parent.
The figures showed that about 30 percent of Prince William's estimate 52,000 students missed 11 or more days of class during the 1997-98 school year. By comparison, Fairfax County, the state's largest school district, with 150,000 students, had an absentee rate of 17 percent. Manassas Park, with about 1,600 students, had the highest absentee rate among local school systems: 32 percent of its students missed 11 or more days of school. Manassas and Stafford County had absentee rates of 22 percent and 24 percent, respectively.
Statewide, the average absentee rate was 26 percent.
Kelly said the Prince William school system has known for a while that it has a problem with truancy and now has chosen to fight it in a coordinated way. "The report that we received only highlighted what we already knew," he said.
Prince William's pilot program is modeled in part after a truancy prevention program that has been in place for two years in Fredericksburg.
Fredericksburg School Superintendent Cecilia H. Krill said police there can pick up truants and take them to school even if the student has been suspended. No one in the 2,150-student district has been picked up through the program, Krill said, something she attributes to good publicity about the crackdown.
"It has really served to let kids know they need to be off the streets during school hours," said Krill, a former associate superintendent for Prince William schools.
At Gar-Field High School, Principal Roger Dallek said three to five students have been picked up and brought back to school since the program started. State statistics show about 49 percent of Gar-Field's students missed 11 or more days during the 1997-98 school year.
"It's been very positive," Dallek said. He hopes that, as news of the program spreads, more students will show up in the classroom. "Things like this do get out by word of mouth," he said.
Geoffrey Dodge, principal of Godwin Middle School, said no students have been returned to his school by police. He let parents know about the program through a newsletter.
"I got nothing but positive things from the community about it," Dodge said. "From their perspective, this increases police patrols in their neighborhoods." According to state statistics, about 39 percent of Godwin students missed 11 of more days of school during the 1997-98 school year.