Truancy center scrutinized

Practices at burdened facility could imperil plans for second site

April 30, 2007|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun Reporter

Council questions truancy system Concerns about the practices of an East Baltimore truancy center are prompting members of the City Council to reconsider plans to fund operations of a new one on the west side.

Some City Council members question a system in which students caught on the streets skipping classes are simply picked up and dropped off at school rather than first being processed and evaluated at the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center.

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who introduced a bill to create a West Baltimore truancy center, pulled the measure last week and plans to meet with members of Mayor Sheila Dixon's staff today to discuss their mutual concerns.

"The mayor's chief of staff and I agree that we need to get together and iron out some of the technical operations of the center," Harris said.

For example, Harris said, one concern is the question of who Joe Sacco, the center's executive director, is supposed to be reporting to.

But in correspondence to council members, Baltimore Police Department officials suggest the existing center is an improvement over previous practices.

In an April 23 letter, James H. Green, director of special projects for the Baltimore Police Department, praised the new system that began this year. "The results have been dramatic," Green wrote in the letter. "The statistics for the 2006-2007 school year (9/25/06-4/20/07) show that 4,538 have been returned to the Baltimore City Public Schools," he wrote.

"This procedure is projected to triple year-to-date enforcement and is designed to return youth to school and allow follow-up by the BTAC."

Opened in November 2003, the truancy center -- on Caroline Street in East Baltimore -- costs $1.1 million a year to operate.

The center is a joint operation of several city agencies, and the goal is to track down chronic truants -- students younger than 16 who miss 20 or more days of school -- and address the reasons why they skip.

According to the most recent data sheet, the number of Baltimore public school students who have missed more than 20 days this school year is 15,639.

About 6,500 of those students are younger than 16 and can be classified as truants, Sacco told council members at a hearing last week of the Housing, Health and Human Services Subcommittee. Students 16 and older are not required to attend school.

After being overwhelmed with a large number of students waiting for service assessments at the truancy center last year, officials moved to a model this year where city police officers round up offenders and return them to school. Those names are forwarded to the truancy center, which pulls attendance records to identify chronic truants.

Truancy officers then make home visits to the parents of chronic truants.

At last week's council hearing, Harris and other council members expressed concerns that the new system fails to provide a holistic approach to combating the problem of truancy and lacks the "wrap-around services" these children need.

"We still want to get to the root problem of why these kids are missing school," Harris said. "They should be coming to the center and evaluating them to determine if they have a history of being truant. Eventually we want them in the school. We do. But if we're just picking them up and dropping them off at school, we can never identify the root cause of the problem."

Sacco said that he, too, prefers the old approach but that the lack of space and staff prompted them to try the new model this year. "We had the counselors here," he said. "We could find out the actual cause of the truancy. But we couldn't handle the numbers they were bringing in last year because we couldn't give them counseling."

Now, he said, they don't have any contact with the truants -- just their parents and the schools.

City Council President Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake, who sat in on last week's hearing, said it is clear that "there are some significant deficiencies in the way" the center is being run, "not the least of which is the gentleman who runs it is saying he doesn't know who he reports to."

"That's troubling," she said. "When you're trying to take care of kids who would otherwise fall through the cracks, that's unacceptable."

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