War on Truancy Hits Parents, Too

COMMENT

October 16, 1994|By MIKE BURNS

The school truant officer used to be the subject of a lot of ridicule, a cartoon foil for the smart-aleck kids who knew how to beat the system until they were eventually found out and corrected by their outraged parents.

In recent years, the truant officer has been replaced by the avenging but similarly outfoxed school principal as the butt of similar jokes ("Ferris Bueller," "The Simpsons," etc.).

But truant officers are still on duty, even if their official title has changed to counselor or pupil personnel worker. They still perform the thankless job of rounding up the strays, tracking down the "skippers" and "ditchers" and reporting them to the school authorities.

Just how the school system then deals with the problem varies from case to case. With parents more likely than ever to hire a lawyer to fight school disciplinary actions of all types, administrative settlements are common. Which may be one reason why Harford County hasn't taken any parent to court on truancy-related charges in nearly five years.

The school system has usually been able to find a solution short of legal action, even if it means promoting a habitual truant just to get her to the legal dropout age of 16.

But Harford is under pressure from the state to improve its secondary school attendance record. That's one benchmark in the Maryland School Performance Program that Harford did not meet in last fall's annual evaluation. The only other failure (among 13 criteria) was in a related area, the school dropout rate.

So it has been intensifying the hunt for truants to get them back in school. Harford is encouraging these kids to continue their education, even offering alternative schooling and mentoring/counseling programs to help them.

But that's not been sufficient to deal with a number of chronic hooky players, especially those students who are younger than high school age, kids whose attitudes need to be changed before it is too late.

Last week, school officials went to court to charge two Aberdeen parents with failing to send their two children to school. The two children, aged 13 and 11, missed a combined 172 days of school in the 1993-94 academic year. (No, neither of them was enrolled in Fallston Middle School, where the short year was officially sanctioned.)

This is only the beginning of the crackdown. Another five or so cases are being prepared for court action against other parents unless their kids start finding the way to the schoolhouse on a regular basis.

"I had reached the end of my rope," said truant officer Nathan R. Smith Jr., who called the misdemeanor charges against Vernon and Christine Lyons "the last resort." Meetings with the parents and children, and intervention by the county social services department --even driving the children to school from their doorstep -- failed to resolve the chronic problem, he explained.

The Lyonses would not comment, so we don't know what explanation they might offer. There was no indication of serious ongoing illness, although Mr. Smith said he could not talk about the family's situation. The parents were represented in District Court Thursday by a public defender, an indication they did not have money to hire a lawyer. The case was postponed for at least a month.

The Maryland Board of Education defines chronic absenteeism as 20 days missed by a student in the school year. That's equivalent to one month in nine, 180 days of school constituting a minimum academic year. Anything over that could be grounds for legal charges.

So the Harford schools have been more than patient with the Lyons family. Perhaps they've even been too tolerant, although school officials point out that their aim is to get children into the classroom, not to punish parents or children.

The two Aberdeen children were promoted in grade despite their deficient attendance. Pupils are often advanced even if they don't meet learning standards. Forcing a child to repeat a grade can't be done forever; it's detrimental to the pupil and the rest of the class.

We understand that some parents just can't make their children obey, or don't want to force their children to obedience. But society has a responsibility to expose these young minds to a basic education. And that must be enforced, if need be, through the courts. Hopefully, this incident will prod other negligent parents to accept their duties.

Harford's school attendance record last year wasn't that bad: a 93.1 percent rate for grades 7 through 12, against a state standard of 94 percent. The attendance rate measures the percentage of registered pupils present; both excused and unexcused absences count as non-attendance.

Superintendent Ray R. Keech correctly points out that academic achievement is more important than kids merely showing up at the schoolhouse. But he's also concerned about raising attendance levels, encouraging individual schools to come up with competitions and programs to do that.

Enthusiasm for that goal became so heated at Havre de Grace High last year that students missing more than five days in a quarter had to produce a physician's excuse or receive a failing grade, regardless of their academic performance. The rule was amended after parent protests, but the message got through to school families and attendance has markedly improved.

For as funny as those fictional class-cutters may seem, be they Huck Finn or Bart Simpson, missing school is nothing to laugh about.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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