Dispensing discipline at city truancy court

May 02, 2008|By Nick Madigan | Nick Madigan,Sun reporter

For the average 13-year-old, there's nothing more squirm-inducing than having a bunch of grown-ups stare at you while they pick apart your performance in school.

Still, when the ordeal is over, it's nice when the adults break into a smile and reward you with a shiny new basketball, as happened a couple of times yesterday at Waverly Middle School in North Baltimore, one of seven city schools holding so-called truancy courts this year.

The sessions serve as forums not just for discipline but for encouragement, career counseling and not-so-gentle nudging.

It helps that, at Waverly, the truancy judge is someone with a soft spot for kids, Catherine Curran O'Malley, who has four of her own (their dad is the governor) and whose day job involves adjudicating, from the bench of Baltimore's District Court, transgressions far more serious than truancy.

"This is touchy-feely, trying to get these kids to some solutions so they can succeed in school," O'Malley said after the Waverly session, the last of the semester. "It's not punitive. It's therapeutic."

And yet, she said, there is a direct correlation between the kids who cannot seem to show up for school -- and eventually drop out -- and those she sees in her real courtroom, many of whom began their descent into crime and drugs at an age when they should have been pounding the books.

"It's sort of depressing in District Court, seeing the defendants I see, after they've failed in school, become addicted to alcohol or drugs, gotten into prostitution or theft," she said. "I ask them in sentencing, `How far did you go in high school?' and they always say, `Didn't complete.' It really closes your options."

O'Malley, a former prosecutor who became a District Court judge in 2001, is in her third semester overseeing truancy courts. Other judges also volunteer for the program.

Citywide, the truancy problem is severe. In the 2006-2007 school year, 6.1 percent of elementary students, 12.4 percent of middle school students and 19.5 percent of high school students missed more than 20 school days, according to the Center for Families, Children and Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law, which since 2004 has run the Truancy Court Program in 13 schools in which absentee rates range from 14 percent to 35 percent.

"Each school identifies students who've had anywhere from five to 20 unexcused absences during the previous semester," said Gloria Danziger, a senior fellow at the law school's family center, "although we've been getting students at all the schools who've had many more absences than that."

For a student to "graduate" from the program, as several did yesterday, he or she must show an increase in attendance of at least 75 percent. The court also looks at classroom behavior and academic performance.

Marcus Pittman, a 13-year-old in the seventh grade, received a basketball and a graduation certificate yesterday after improving markedly from a Feb. 28 report.

O'Malley grew impatient with another student who had missed several classes and repeatedly responded, "I don't know," to her questions.

"You're going to start talking now," O'Malley said.

Tabitha Williams, 13, came to the session with her father, Bruce Williams, who, like other parents, permitted her name to be published. The judge noted both a slip in Tabitha's performance and untapped potential. O'Malley suggested that because Tabitha seemed terribly shy, her court sessions could be held one on one, without the crowd of a faux courtroom. Tabitha assented, almost inaudibly.

We're not here to criticize you," O'Malley said. "We're here to help you," O'Malley said.

nick.madigan@baltsun.com

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