UB law school to launch truancy courts

Plan is effort to reduce city pupils' absences

December 16, 2004|By Laura Loh | Laura Loh,SUN STAFF

The University of Baltimore's School of Law is launching truancy courts in five East Baltimore schools to stem the number of students who play hooky, university officials said yesterday.

Organizers are hoping to serve about 600 pupils over the next two years at Highlandtown, Canton and Southeast middle schools, as well as Elmer A. Henderson and Holabird elementary schools, which have some of the highest truancy rates in the city.

Each year, about 30 percent of Baltimore's 89,000 public school students are considered truant, defined as being absent without an excuse for 20 or more days in a school year. City data show that neighborhoods with high truancy rates also have higher rates of violent crime, according to the law school's Center for Families, Children and the Courts, which is overseeing the court program.

"Truancy is one of the most crucial problems facing urban schools today," Gilbert Holmes, the dean of the law school, said at an open house for the program at Southeast Middle yesterday. "It's a problem that has grown to crisis proportions."

The new truancy court program, which is being funded by an $80,000 grant from the Charles Crane Family Foundation, is a collaboration among the school system, the Baltimore Circuit Court's juvenile division, Mayor Martin O'Malley's office and social service providers.

In addition to bringing together these organizations, the program will give more structure and heft to truancy prevention efforts, according to organizers and school officials.

Unlike the truancy courts that exist in a handful of city schools, the new program focuses on a cluster of elementary and middle schools that feed into a single high school, Patterson High. The new program also will draw from a more extensive network of community and government resources. The courts will offer pupils incentives to attend school regularly, try to identify reasons why pupils are absent and refer troubled families to social services, parent classes or anger-management counseling.

The new courts also will have the influence of a sitting judge from the Circuit or District courts, unlike the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, a year-old operation run by several city agencies that has referred hundreds of students picked up by police to various services.

Although a judge will be present, the new courts are designed to be a nurturing, rather than punitive, experience, said Gloria Danziger, a senior fellow working for the Center for Families, Children and the Courts. Students from the law school will work in the schools as mentors and tutors.

After the program's two-year run, the law school will review the possibility of forming truancy courts in other schools.

Melissa Boyd-King, an eighth-grade math teacher who attended the open house, said she was eager for the truancy court to be launched at Canton Middle, where more than 41 percent of pupils were truant last year.

About half of the 125 eighth-graders she teaches have attendance problems, she said. That is in spite of her efforts, which have included visiting students' homes to rouse them in the morning, buying them alarm clocks and rewarding them for coming to class.

But Boyd-King said she has not been able to help every youngster. "For the student [who has] an underlying problem in the family, I don't have the resources to manage that problem," she said.

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