Truants could be denied the wheel

Plan ties attendance to driving permits

General Assembly

March 21, 2007|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,Sun reporter

Students who habitually skip school could be barred from obtaining driving permits under a measure being considered by the state Senate this week.

States around the country have cracked down on truant students by taking away their driver's licenses. But Maryland's version of the measure lost some of its bite last week when lawmakers in the House of Delegates amended and passed a version that would apply only to students younger than 16 who are eligible for permits.

The bill would require a student under 16 to submit an attendance record when applying for a driving permit. A student with more than 10 unexcused absences would be ineligible for a permit.

The bill's lead sponsor, Del. Gerron S. Levi, a Prince George's County Democrat, said she had hoped the measure would go further, applying to students under 18. Some lawmakers thought the provisions were too far-reaching and might have a reverse effect by encouraging students to drop out of school. Maryland students are required to attend school until age 16.

Last week, House lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the amended version of the bill, on a vote of 133-1.

Levi said that while the bill doesn't go as far as she had wished, it is a useful method for fighting truancy.

"Young people look forward to the day when they can drive, but driving is a privilege, not a right," she said. "It's not just an issue of missed classroom time or missed learning opportunities. Where you see truancy, you also see a surge in daytime crime, burglaries and vandalism. My goal is just to get the attention of young people to stay in school."

Levi noted that current laws to curb truancy punish parents and even levy fines on businesses that cater to truants, but students are not penalized - "a shortcoming in our law," she said, that spares students from being held accountable.

Schools in Prince George's County and Baltimore have the state's worst truancy problems. In the previous school year, about 4 percent of Prince George's 134,000 students were considered "habitually truant," according to state figures.

This school year, nearly 12,000 of the Baltimore system's approximately 83,000 students have missed 20 or more days, said Joe Sacco, executive director of the city's Truancy Assessment Center, which helps students tackle the many social problems that can lead to truancy.

Baltimore City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who testified in support of the bill, said he had hoped the legislature's effort to crack down on driving privileges would be more stringent, but he said targeting permits is a good start.

"For [young people] to be successful, productive members of society, they need a high school education," Harris said.

If the measure is approved, Maryland will join 24 other states with similar restrictions, many of which are more stringent than its proposal. In Georgia, the state's board of education reports attendance records to the motor vehicle agency, said Susan Sports, a spokeswoman for the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

Chronically truant students under 18 can have their licenses suspended for up to a year.

Also, students can lose licenses for other infractions, including bringing a weapon to school or being caught with drugs or alcohol, Sports said.

Still, not all Maryland lawmakers support the measure. Sen. Lisa A. Gladden, a Baltimore Democrat, said the bill would not deter truancy in Baltimore, where most students rely on public transportation. Further, she said, the bill does little to address the root of truancy: failing schools.

"Truancy to me is bigger than just making the kid go to school," she said. "You have to create a school environment where they want to go to school. We are doing Band-Aid measures for a major problem in the city and in other communities."

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