The sign on the door of the Wipeout video parlor in the basement of a Wisconsin Avenue apartment building near Tenley Circle reads: "Nobody 15 or under is allowed in until 3:00 or school is over for the day."
But manager Mark Bergman sometimes finds it hard to make that order stick in the tiny arcade situated within easy distance of several Northwest Washington public and private schools. "It's pretty tough. Very few of them have ID cards," he said in an interview this week. "If you stood around checking everybody's ID, 95 percent of the people would have to leave."
Thanks to the booming popularity of the video wars, Bergman and others like him are experiencing the latest wrinkle of a problem that has long troubled Washington's school officials: truancy.
Although school attendance rates have improved from 82.9 percent in 1977-78 to 87.4 percent last year, Washington's overall absentee rate of 12.6 percent is still twice the national average and the highest rate in the area.
Absenteeism is a particular problem among older students, and its impact extends beyond the effect on the individuals who skip classes. School officials say truants lower overall standardized and achievement test scores because they are likely to be far behind students who attend regularly. D.C. police complain that it takes up valuable patrol time to pick up and return truants to school.
Both police and local officials say there is a direct connection, as well, between truancy and crime. In the city's 5th Police District, "40 percent of those persons arrested during school hours for burglaries and robberies are school-age youth," said Officer David Chapman, assigned to that district's community services section.
"The school system can't ignore what has been happening in relation to truants and crime," said D.C. Board of Education member R. David Hall (Ward 2). "It's much cheaper to increase attendance aides and graduate them with a skill than to leave them on the street, unemployed, to become a crime statistic."
The D.C. Commission on Crime and Justice, pointing to truancy as a factor in rising crime, recommended this fall that both parents and merchants be held criminally liable for truancy problems.
The commission proposed a "curfew violation act" that would stiffen existing penalties for merchants who allow school-age youth to loiter on their premises during school hours. The commission said the 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. curfew is aimed specifically at video arcades and other establishments that attract youngsters.
"The video parlors are a new fad at this time that is replacing some other places where students used to go," said Deputy School Superintendent Alfred Jenkins.
"Baltimore and Philadelphia have such a curfew. This would involve not only holding parents and truants responsible, but the merchants as well," said Stephen Harlan, chairman of the commission's crime prevention committee.
Under the proposal, merchants who failed to enforce the curfew could be fined from $25 to $300 or jailed from 10 to 30 days or both.
"We have to deal with the social, economic and intrapersonal problems that contribute to truancy," said Shirley Wilson, director of D.C.'s office of criminal justice plans and analysis.
"Increasing student achievement is our number one priority, but I'd say that cutting the absentee rate is a close second," said School Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie. "We want to be able to notify a parent the same day the child is absent so that no pattern is allowed to develop."
The D.C. school system currently employes 19 full-time attendance officers, down from 31 in 1980 because of budget cuts, who deal with truants from as many as 12 schools each.
This year's fiscal 1983 budget contains about $350,000 for 24 attendance aides who will monitor truancy in secondary schools, where absenteeism is highest. Officials plan to hire 49 more aides next year, to have someone monitoring truancy in each of the system's secondary schools.
The school system had 27 aides in 1980 who were paid from Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) funds. All were lost when those funds were cut.
Truancy problems are greatest among the city's older students. In Washington last year, attendance rates were at 92 percent in the elementary schools but dropped to 84.6 percent in junior highs and 80.7 percent in senior highs. The systemwide attendance rate was 87.4 percent, for a truancy rate of 12.6 percent.
In Region D, the school district that runs from far Northeast to the Pennsylvania Avenue corridor, absenteeism is at its severest, with attendance rates of only 76.8 percent in high schools.
In Montgomery County last year, attendance rates ranged from 94.4 percent in elementary schools to 90.3 percent in senior highs. In Fairfax, the attendance rates were 95 percent in elementaries and 93 percent for grades 8 through 12.
In addition to the expanded attendance staff, Washington school officials are trying a variety of approaches to attack absenteeism. A new program called Parent to Parent, implemented on a pilot basis last year and credited with raising Eastern High School's attendance rate from 77.4 percent to 79.6 percent, is being implemented systemwide this year, said C. Vanessa Spinner, director of volunteer services for the school system.
"The program is designed to get respective communities involved in combating truancy in their own schools," said Spinner. "Each parent volunteers to donate four hours a week to call the parents of children who aren't in school and find out why."
Advertisements about the program have encouraged 30 parents to sign up as volunteers, and Spinner said that each school is being encouraged to seek volunteers from neighboring areas. Spinner says she would like to see a volunteer in each of the district's 180 schools.
Another program called Project Attend places truants in groups that meet once a week for nine weeks to discuss the merits of staying in school. "Happygrams" are sent to parents when their child's attendance improves, in an attempt to reinforce a sense of accomplishment.
Dunbar High School will use part of a $20,000 Ford Foundation urban high school recognition grant to monitor attendance.
The school system has also implemented a number of "private/public partnerships" this fall in fields ranging from communications to banking and finance, in part to involve students who may be less interested in regular education programs.
"We have to deal with relating education more to real life," said McKenzie. In the pre-engineering program, for example, she envisions giving each student a "mentor" who would allow the student to visit the office and get a feel for the profession.
The city's schools already have seen several improvements. The number of dropouts plummeted from 966 in 1980-81 to 583 last year. Truancies also fell, from 16,706 cases in 1980-81 to about 15,000 last year, according to school spokesman Maurice Sykes.
The number of court referrals for students that the school system has been unable to keep in class has dropped from 78 in 1980-81 to only 20 last year, according to school statistics.
School officials attribute some of the decline in dropouts to the fact that some youngsters who might have quit school to find jobs are staying put because of Washington's high unemployment.
But James Guines, associate superintendent for instruction, says the system's competency-based curriculum in reading and math, begun in 1976, has helped keep more students in school.
"The traditional way of teaching here was that you had a test after a series of lectures. Some students only felt it was necessary to come on the day of the test and wound up flunking," said Guines. "Now, these classes begin with an objective and end with an assessment. There is more feedback and an awareness of progress . . . . It causes young people to get more excited about coming to school."