Balto. Co. employs programs designed to keep students in schools, their parents out of court 2 plans for chronic truants appear to be working, education officials say

October 09, 1995|By Elaine Tassy | Elaine Tassy,SUN STAFF

Parents who can't get their children to school might end up before the law, through two Baltimore County anti-truancy programs that appear to be getting results.

Joseph L. Marshall's parents experienced one of the programs this month, landing in District Court for allowing their son to accumulate 46 illegal absences out of 180 days last school year.

Joey, 15, was crafty. Although his mother, Joan Marshall, would struggle to get him out of bed, he had a system for entering Arbutus Middle School or the Campfield Alternative Center.

"I would go in the front door, and when it was clear, with no teachers around, I would go out the back door," he said in a pretrial interview.

That left the Marshalls facing prosecution under a 1978 state law, which allows a judge to hit the parents of chronic truants with a $50 fine and 10 days in jail for each illegal absence.

Sentences handed down to parents in the 1994-1995 school year included suspended jail time and fines, probation, community service, and family counseling. Some children were placed in foster care. And one parent spent four hours in jail.

The Marshalls fared better. District Judge Alexander Wright Jr. allowed the Marshall case to be put on the inactive docket; it will not be reopened if Joey attends school regularly.

The court experience had a profound affect on Mrs. Marshall.

"In a way, I blame myself to a certain extent for not pushing him more," she said.

Since the trial, everything is different.

"He is not missing a day of school for nothing," she said. "I'm not going to fall for his boo-hooing -- he's going to school."

It has affected Joey, too. Days before the trial, he bit his nails to the quick and lost sleep. "He was really scared, but that's what he needed," his mother said.

About half of the chronic truants who remained in the school system this year began attending regularly after their parents were taken to court, according to a survey being analyzed by Peter J. Stankoski, court liaison to the county's pupil personnel office.

The survey found that during the last school year, parents of 54 truant students, age 5 to 16, were prosecuted.

Of those, 33 stayed in county schools, and the attendance of 17 of them improved between 7 percent and 98 percent.

"The court was beneficial -- for these 17 families and students, it was a dramatic improvement," Mr. Stankoski said.

"Project Attend" is another anti-truancy program considered effective. Launched at Lansdowne High School in February, the program sends students, their parents and others to a court hearing with a hearing officer, and links them with community services.

In the last school year, 17 chronic truants and their parents met in Catonsville District Court with police officers, school officials and juvenile justice workers in confidential hearings every other Monday evening.

In three-hour sessions that involved six students and their parents, police officers spoke about the correlation between truancy and crime; juvenile justice workers identified causes and solutions for the truancy problem; and families learned about support services.

Sometimes, students are paired with senior citizen role models or are told to perform community service, said county police officer Mike Darcey.

In the program's first year at Lansdowne High, 12 of the 17 students showed an average 15 percent improvement in attendance, said Principal Laurie Fogleman, describing the changes as "overwhelmingly successful."

Now, school officials are expanding the program.

Ms. Fogleman said results of the pilot program led the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Council to award a $40,000 grant, extending it to Kenwood and Patapsco high schools and the middle schools that feed into them.

About 300 students are expected to participate in the program ** during the school year. Students 13 to 15 with the most absences and juvenile offenses will be priorities.

Those who go through "Project Attend" get a nice perk at Lansdowne High. On returning to school, students check in daily at the office, a school secretary commends their attendance, and faculty members offer ice cream or lunch outings as rewards.

Mr. Stankoski said, "You had a cheerleader there every day."

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