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Urban Districts Step Up Efforts To Nab Truant Students

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With an eye to curbing juvenile crime and keeping children in school, police departments and school districts across the country are undertaking concerted efforts to track down truants.

In recent weeks, several urban school districts--from New York City to Milwaukee to Fresno, Calif.--have teamed up with police to get students off the streets, out of the video arcades, and back to class. Truancy is viewed as a precursor to dropping out of school entirely.

In Philadelphia and New York, which may begin its first sweeps in many years as early as this week, such plans have met with concerns about following up on truant students' attendance, and possible racial discrimination by police or other civil-liberties violations.

Elsewhere, such as in Milwaukee and Orlando, Fla., however, the initiatives to sweep up those playing hooky have met with favorable reviews.

The efforts come at a time when shopping malls are banning school-age children from their premises during school hours and weekend nights, and cities are establishing curfews. (See Education Week, March 16, 1994.)

In the nation's largest school district, New York City, letters were expected to go out this week to parents and students explaining the district's cooperation in the police-initiated pilot program there, said Robert Terte, a spokesman for the school district.

The money-strapped system was scrambling last week to arrange personnel, telephones, and room at overcrowded schools to receive truants picked up by police throughout the city's five boroughs.

Police are to determine whether students are truant from school, take them to a school-intake center, and get in touch with a parent or guardian, Mr. Terte said. (See Education Week, March 9, 1994.)

Last week, the program continued to prompt concerns.

Dennis Walcott, a school board member and the president of the New York Urban League, said his concerns were "multifaceted,'' including how police would be able to distinguish truant students from those who leave school early or are on their way to jobs. He said it is difficult to tell by looking at their identification cards when students are expected to be in school.

Worries Abound

Sweeps raise the specter of a "selective racial pattern'' if police use stereotypes to pass by the "white kid in a blazer and button-down shirt'' and pick up "the black or Hispanic youth dressed in a black Raiders jacket and baggy jeans,'' said Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Walcott said he thinks the program "can go forward with the proper checks and balances,'' such as parent involvement and special training for police officers.

In Philadelphia, concerns over a plan for police to apprehend truants forced its apparent abandonment.

The plan, announced in January, was aimed at cutting down on unexcused absences and youth crime. But city council members last month criticized the approach as heavy-handed. (See Education Week, Jan. 26 and March 23, 1994.)

Children's advocates objected to the program after budget cuts this year forced the elimination of 44 of the city's 45 truant officers and problems with a pilot program last year.

Shaking Up Parents

Since its inception in February, the truant program in Orlando, which is supported by the community, has brought in more than 200 students, 170 in March alone.

The program is a partnership among seven local and state law-enforcement, school, and human-services agencies, said Lieut. Clarence Cain of the Orange County Sheriff's Department.

About 8,000 absences--many excused--are reported daily among the county's 108,000 students, he said.

Under the program, a truant student is brought to a police-staffed school drop-off site, parents must pick up the student, and a social worker or guidance counselor follows up in each case. The pilot program aims to deter burglary and shoplifting and shake up parents, Lieutenant Cain said.

Police plan to start prosecution soon against the "worst of the worst'' parental offenders. The program has seen a couple of students who have so far skipped about 75 percent of the school year.

Last fall, both Milwaukee and New Orleans--which has picked up 3,000 students since October--started similar programs.

In Milwaukee, the $500,000 program--marrying the efforts of police agencies, the school district, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee--has been funded for two years out of the governor's budget.

The Milwaukee program, Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression is modeled on TABS programs in San Jose, Calif., and Oklahoma City that have reduced daytime juvenile crime, said Sgt. David Iushewitz, who heads the youth-services unit of the Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department.

About 3,000 students a day have unexcused absences from the 90,000-student district, Sergeant Iushewitz said.

Since the program started in November, 904 students have been brought into two sites, and just 8 percent have been picked up more than once.

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