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Hawaii Schools and Police Join To Crack Down on Truants

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The lure of Hawaii's beaches, malls, and video arcades proved too strong for several thousand high-school students, who have been nabbed by local law-enforcement officials in a cooperative program to crack down on truants.

Although Hawaii has one of the toughest compulsory-attendance laws in the nation, the state legislature has never provided money to pay for truant officers, according to George A. Herman, spokesman for the state department of education. School attendance is required until the age of 18, but students with a full-time job may drop out with the consent of the district superintendent or their parents.

But despite the lack of state support, under a joint program agreed to by State Superintendent Donnis H. Thompson and the Oahu police chief, six police officers have been assigned to patrol for truant students.

During the first eight months of the program, which began last year and is continuing this year, the police detail picked up 4,378 truants, many of whom, according to Mr. Herman, were repeat offenders.

As the only statewide school system in the nation, Hawaii's department of educa-tion is responsible for administering educational programs for about 160,000 students in seven districts.

Truancy among students has been a persistent problem in Hawaii and school districts throughout the nation. In a national survey of more than 16,500 high-school seniors, 13.4 percent of those responding said that within a four-week period they "skipped or cut" classes at least one day for reasons other than illness.

More than 7 percent of those surveyed said they skipped two days of school; 4.7 percent reported cutting three days of school; and 3.9 percent of the students surveyed said they skipped three to four days of school. Less than 1 percent of the students said they stayed away from school 11 days or more and 1.6 percent of those surveyed said they cut six to 10 days of school, according to the results of the survey, which was conducted in 1980 by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research.

Alternative Programs

In Hawaii, school and law enforcement officials are attempting to keep students in school by offering alternative-education programs, according to Mr. Herman. The truancy program, however, represents the first serious effort to curtail a problem that officials knew existed in the schools.

For the first offense, truant students are returned to school; the second time, they are taken to the police station, where their parents must pick them up.

Chronic truants, those who are picked up more than twice, are referred to Family Court, where, under a new law enacted recently by the Hawaii legislature, their parents may be convicted of "educational neglect," a petty misdemeanor, according to Mr. Herman.

Those convicted under the new law could receive a maximum 30-day sentence and a $500 fine.

"It's not always in the lifestyle of some of these students and their families to put a high priority on education," Mr. Herman said. "We have had parents who have hidden them away" from police and school authorities, he added.

Last year, about 290 chronic truants were referred to Family Court, according to Beverly I. Lee, the state department of education's Family Court liaison officer. In 1970, when she was hired, only five truants were referred to the court by the school department, which at the time had not established a referral procedure as required by law.

But the program has paid off in a noticeable decline in the number of burglaries commited during school hours for the eight-month period, according to a spokesman for the Oahu Police Department. Between 8 A.M. and 2 P.M., the period when most schools are in operation, the number of burglaries decreased by 9.5 percent, police said.

Ms. Lee said the program has also helped identify students with problems. In one case, police officers apprehended a student who had run away from home because her parents had beaten her.

"We're really quite pleased with the cooperation we've received from the police department," she said.

"In the event that a student is not enrolled in any school," Ms. Lee said, "we've asked the police to make a direct referral to Family Court. It helps us and it helps the students."

Such students are often placed under the "protective supervision of the state department of education," she added.

Mr. Herman said local merchants have been supportive of the program, posting signs that prohibit school-aged children from loitering in their stores during school hours. But, he added, "You can't do much about the beaches."

A similar program was launched at the beginning of the school year by school and law-enforcement officials on the island of Maui, according to Ms. Lee.

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