Tracking down truants

Cases of homeless, starving kids hint at larger issues

February 18, 2007|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,Sun reporter

About 10:30 a.m. on a school day, three teenage boys in black hats, hooded sweatshirts and puffy coats are standing on a corner known for drug-dealing. Down the block, an eviction is under way, with men throwing mattresses out an upstairs window.

The blue van pulls up to one of the few rowhouses on this West Baltimore street that isn't boarded up. Charles Washington, 69, slides out of the back seat, knocks on the door and introduces himself: a truancy officer from the city public schools.

He is looking for a 12-year-old girl who has missed 31 days of classes at William H. Lemmel Middle, but she doesn't live there anymore. The man at the door says his family took in the girl as an abandoned infant, but last summer her mother came back for her. Now, he believes she's "running wild."

"They love her like it was their own child," Washington says as he reports back to the van's driver, fellow truancy officer Walter Barnes III, 55. "They want the child back."

The men work for the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, a division of the city school police department and the only program of its kind in Maryland. The center works to track down chronic truants in a school system where an estimated 4,500 students - more than 5 percent of the total enrolled - are absent each day without a valid excuse.

Truancy, a problem often seen as the precursor to crime and other social ills, has gained attention in recent weeks as the state's new first lady, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, made it her signature cause. She has not proposed any specific action, but she says she wants to draw attention to the issue.

The attention couldn't come at a better time for the truancy center, which costs $1.1 million a year to operate and is trying to secure funding for a second location. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., one of the center's founders, plans to introduce a resolution later this month asking for Mayor Sheila Dixon's support.

Every weekday, Washington and Barnes ride through the city's most economically depressed and drug-infested neighborhoods trying to locate chronic truants, students between the ages of 5 and 15 who've had 20 or more unexcused absences. After students turn 16, they are free to drop out of school.

Both retired city police officers, they seek to provide whatever help is needed to get truant kids back in school. They link families with the center's in-house service providers, including counselors from the state departments of social and juvenile services and the city housing department. They also inform parents that they can face jail time for their children's prolonged absences.

The truancy center is made possible by a city curfew law prohibiting students from being on the streets between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days. Officials from other school systems have visited, expressing interest in starting something similar.

Joe Sacco, the center's executive director, says unexcused absences have dropped since his program started in 2003, when the daily figure was between 6,000 and 7,000. But no other Maryland system except Prince George's County has a problem comparable to the city's.

Nationally, Sacco says, about 3.2 million students are absent from school each day. Communities use a variety of strategies to combat truancy, from denying driver's licenses for bad attendance to offering cars for good attendance. In Norwalk, Conn., families can be evicted from public housing if their children are truant.

Two Baltimore initiatives, the truancy center and a truancy court run by the University of Baltimore, focus on the problems leading to chronic absenteeism.

With a staff of 18, the center operates out of a former day care and administrative building for Sojourner-Douglass College in East Baltimore. When it first opened, kids swept off the street during the school day were transported there for a service assessment while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

But the need was overwhelming and the center was crowded, with kids waiting for hours and those from rival gangs sometimes trying to fight each other. So officials tried a new approach this year.

Now, city police officers take the kids they round up on the street - 2,604 between October and December - back to school. They forward the students' names to the truancy center, which pulls their attendance records. Then Sacco's eight truancy officers make house calls for the worst cases.

They find students who are homeless, students who are home baby-sitting younger siblings, students who are on the corners selling drugs, sometimes under orders from a parent.

Once, they found a 12-year-old girl in a bathrobe, prostituting herself to get by. Another time, they found a filthy 7-year-old boy starving and abandoned by his mother.

Barnes, who also served as a state trooper, has a quiet, gentle demeanor. He works three jobs: a truancy officer by day, a Johns Hopkins campus guard by night, and a Pentecostal church pastor on Sundays.

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