Program catches, helps city's truant students

Center concentrates on why kids miss school

May 03, 2004|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

When Baltimore police Sgt. Therman Reed spotted a school-age girl, a book bag over her shoulder, cutting classes on a sunny morning last week, he asked her if she had a pass. She told him the wind blew it away.

"You think I believe that?" asked an incredulous Reed, who works with the city school system's fledgling truancy center.

About 30 minutes later, the girl was seated at a desk at an old day care center along with about a dozen other truants. One by one, they posed for identification photos and met with counselors. Later, upset parents or guardians picked up the children.

Supervising the scene - family dramas and all - is Joe Sacco, a retired police officer who has served as executive director of the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center since it opened in November.

So far, Sacco and other police officials are calling the truancy crackdown an early success, pointing to a drop in daytime crime. Of the 800 children taken to the East Baltimore center in the past six months, 50 have returned. On average, at least a dozen truants are picked up a day, though the number rises as high as 30 at times.

"I feel like this program was a long time coming," Sacco said.

Although many school systems have truancy programs, city officials say Baltimore's program is unique in the nation in its combination of law enforcement officials with a team of counselors under one roof.

Before the center opened, police picked up truants and took them home or back to school. That model didn't work well, however, in cases where students had been suspended or when parents were absent, Sacco and city officials said. Sometimes, students were forced to wait for hours at police stations.

Officials say the new program works better because it matches students with counselors who can seek out the reasons behind the truancy - perhaps a problem with a bully, poor nutrition or lack of proper clothing.

City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. came up with the idea for the center after residents complained about school-age children hanging out during the day on street corners and at bus stops.

Police attribute about 60 percent of crimes committed during the day to juveniles who should be in school.

Harris said he wants to set up more centers - as many as four citywide - but is still looking for funding. City officials pitched in $100,000 to open the truancy center.

At least another $100,000 will be needed to continue the program next year, more if new centers are to open. City officials are hoping grants can help pay for the program, given the school system's financial straits.

"All of us are like the blind man trying to navigate the street: We all need a helping hand," said Harris, who gets regular reports from Sacco. "This truancy center is that helping hand for our youth. It's a dream come true, but it's one of those things that we are going to improve and build on."

The center, housed in a vacant day care center at the Sojourner-Douglass College campus at 400 N. Caroline St, has a staff of 30, including police officers, sheriff's deputies, and counselors from the city's departments of social services and juvenile services.

"The whole point is to make this a one-stop shop," Sacco said, explaining that in the past, when police found students on the streets, there was no way to assess the child's emotional or medical needs.

Juveniles with outstanding bench warrants also are tracked down through the truancy center. A criminal check is run on each child taken into custody.

On an average school day, about 5,000 of the 90,438 students in the Baltimore public school system are absent without a valid excuse, according to Sacco. Last year, 52 percent of middle and high school students were absent for more than 20 days without a valid excuse.

Almost everyone connected with the truancy center has a sad story to tell.

Sacco recalls a little boy who was found dirty and hungry, wandering city streets. Officials later learned the child had been abandoned.

Harris is struck by the story of a teen-age girl who spent schooldays at a cemetery. The girl was so depressed after her grandmother's death that she couldn't bear to leave the grave.

"Through this program, we were able to get her some counseling," Harris said. "Let's say we didn't have this program. Who knows what would have happened to her?"

Most cases are not as drastic. On a recent hourlong sweep of neighborhoods near West Baltimore Middle School, Reed and Sacco spotted about a dozen students walking through neighborhoods during school hours.

When Sacco and Reed approached the students, they pointed fingers at the children when they tried to ignore them.

"Where are you going?" they asked two boys who were walking along North Bend Street near the school about 9:30 a.m. The boys - 14 and 15 - said they were running late because they had to wash their clothes, a fairly common excuse, Sacco said.

Since the boys were about a block from the school, Sacco and Reed let them go but warned them that the next time they'd be taken to the truancy center. Sacco and Reed then made sure the boys reached school, driving ahead and waiting in the parking lot. A few minutes later, the boys marched past.

"You see that, they went to school because they knew someone cared," said Sacco. "They knew someone was watching them."

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