Chronic truants targeted in county by pilot program Project Attend links school-skippers with volunteer monitors

March 26, 1998|By Kris Antonelli | Kris Antonelli,SUN STAFF

Pam Rohrer saw in an eighth-grader at Old Mill Middle School South who chronically cut class because she'd rather stay in bed the perfect candidate for a pilot program that tracks truants.

"I was having fun at skipping school and staying at home," said the girl, who missed 53 days from September to mid-February. She asked that her name not be used because she does not want her classmates to tease her.

As a participant in Project Attend, she and other students in several Anne Arundel County schools who skip will be monitored by volunteers such as Rohrer, who is an attendance secretary at the school.

Begun last month at Freetown, Meade Heights, Point Pleasant and Richard Henry Lee elementaries, Marley, Old Mill South and Corkran middle schools, and Glen Burnie High School, the program is in effect in one other school district, Baltimore County's.

In Anne Arundel, the number of students cutting classes has fallen from 1,680 during the 1995-1996 school year to 1,580 last school year. But school officials thought the program would help with extreme cases, such as that of the Old Mill student.

Besides having fun at home, the 13-year-old said, she hated waiting outside for her 8: 40 a.m. bus, and no one was home to take her to school when she missed the bus.

Under Project Attend, administrators refer a total of six students from the schools, more if the program works and is expanded.

State law requires that a student miss no more than six days of a 180-day school year, but school attendance rules are flexible enough to allow for more absences for such things as an extended illness, said Suzanne Zukauskas, one of the project's coordinators.

A student can fail with six unexcused absences during a six-week marking period.

In such a case, school officials notify county police, who may require parents and the student to attend a hearing in District Court in Glen Burnie. Truancy hearings are held and presided over by juvenile justice and school officials in an office setting in Annapolis; a Project Attend hearing has a more serious tone.

Project hearings "are held in a courtroom at night with a juvenile justice worker, an armed and uniformed police officer and a school administrator," said Zukauskas. "It's a much more frightening experience."

During the Old Mill student's hearing Feb. 19, a police officer told her and her parents that the parents could be arrested and fined $50 for every day she missed school.

"My mother was mad. She said it wasn't her fault that I didn't go to school," the girl said. "I thought I was going to be sent to a juvenile home, and that was scary."

During the hearing, an attendance contract was arrived at between the student and the school. It requires her to check in and out each day with Rohrer and to have her teachers fill out a daily report noting her attendance and her attitude, conduct and quiz or test performance.

"Before the hearing, I thought that no one cared enough to make me go to school, and if my parents wanted me to go to school they would stay at home and make me go," the girl said. "But now I understand that they have to be at work before I get on the bus."

The difference between Project Attend and the way truants are usually handled is in the follow-up, Zukauskas said.

Truant cases involve hearings, and the students are told that they must attend school or their parents might be arrested, but they do not involve anyone like the volunteers to check in with or to monitor students' daily progress, she said.

"This really seems to be working for her," Rohrer said of the Old Mill student. "Since her hearing, she has only missed three days because she was sick."

Pub Date: 3/26/98

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