Tackling truancy

February 06, 2007

The failure of so many Baltimore students to show that they had received required immunizations has brought new attention to the long-standing problem of truancy, which accounts for an estimated 6,000 schoolchildren roaming the city's streets on any given day. It's a problem that needs more attention and the expansion of some worthy efforts among school, police and court officials.

Chronic truants have unexcused absences for 20 or more school days. Bringing more of them back into Baltimore classrooms has re-emerged as a priority in part because the federal No Child Left Behind law makes schools more accountable for dropouts. Police also want to see more students in school because most juvenile offenses are committed during the daytime. And many judges, such as District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, who want to make truancy a priority, recognize it as a harbinger of criminal activity.

Typically, a truant caught on the street by police is taken to school and left with an administrator. The case is processed by the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, where police and social service workers come together and also work with school officials to figure out why the student is skipping school, from family illness to lack of adequate clothing, and what would help to turn the situation around.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial Tuesday incorrectly stated the estimated daily truancy figure for Baltimore. It should have said 4,400. The Sun regrets the error.

Similarly, the truancy court program run by the University of Baltimore School of Law brings judges into schools for private sessions with students and their parents to get at root causes and help them understand the consequences of continued absences. Elementary and middle school students must meet weekly goals for the eight- to 10-week program, and they usually avoid becoming serious, chronic truants.

These are effective programs, but they need to be expanded through public and private funding. The Truancy Assessment Center, which operates on the east side of the city and has been picking up close to 2,000 kids in the past two school years and getting about one-third back to school on a regular basis, could use an additional center on the west side. The truancy court program drew 20 applications from schools but had enough foundation support for only five. And the school system needs to hire workers for the newly re-established school attendance office that was wiped out a few years ago to help cope with the enormous deficit.

Getting kids off the streets, out of trouble and back in school is well worth additional investment.

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