Connecting kids to school

November 27, 2003

"I'M HERE because I care about you." That's what Circuit Judge David W. Young tells each child he meets during truancy court in West Baltimore Middle School, where he volunteers on Wednesday mornings. He also says he's tired of locking up kids like them when he does his paid job, sitting on the bench in Courthouse East.

Last school year, 52 percent of students in the city's middle and high schools were classified truant, which means absent without excuse more than 20 days -- a month's worth of class. That means they have less chance at landing a good job, and much more chance of risky behavior -- and death. In just the past two years, Judge Young knows of 15 kids who had spent time in his court and now are dead by murder; among them were two 14-year-olds who were killed during school hours. That impresses the 14-year-olds, and their guardians, who sit at the table with him.

Social workers and school attendance monitors join in, asking, "Why not come to school?" The reasons are legion: No bus pass. Have to take care of younger sibling. Bad asthma days. Hate school. Can't keep up in class. Family troubles.

But the help here is legion, too. Bus passes. Tutoring. Appointments with social workers, child counselors, family counselors. Phone numbers for finding child care, medical services, food stamps, clothes, housing. The judge's phone number, if a parent wants to talk.

The close coordination at school-based courts helps treat the causes, not the symptoms. And it can work: At Harlem Park Elementary, instituting a truancy court helped the school surpass the state's 94 percent attendance goal the past two years. But there are only eight truancy courts in the city's 108 schools, though more than half the schools are not meeting attendance goals. It isn't a matter of cost -- court leaders are volunteers and school attendance staffers do the weekly organizing -- but rather of commitment.

School principals are pleading for more volunteers -- and Baltimoreans should heed their call.

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