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Police To Apprehend Truants in Philadelphia

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Students in Philadelphia who are truant from school will be handcuffed by police and taken to one of four regional centers, under a policy announced this month by district officials.

City and transit police will pick up suspected truants on the streets or in shopping centers that are popular hangouts and take them to the truancy centers, which are scheduled to open this month.

While the primary purpose of the initiative is to cut down on the number of unexcused absences from school, district officials said they hope it will also help reduce youth-related crime. Last year, during a six-month period when a similar program was in operation, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, and theft incidents dropped by more than 20 percent.

On any given school day, about 27,000 of the district's 191,000 students are absent, according to a study released last month by Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, a child-advocacy group. And, on average, high school students miss 41 days of school a year.

Truancy-center personnel will determine which school a student should have been attending, call the school and the students' parents, provide students with counseling and some academic work, and monitor the students' attendance.

No Claims to 'High Quality'

The students will receive reading materials or packets of academic work to keep them busy. Truants who are taken to the centers early enough in the day might be sent back to their schools, said James H. Lytle, an assistant superintendent.

"We are not pretending that this is a high-quality instructional program,'' Mr. Lytle said. "This is strictly meant to discourage kids from not being in school and hanging out all over town.''

The centers will be staffed by retired counselors, long-term substitute teachers, reassigned security officers, and some school staff members. The centers will be open from 10 A.M. to 2:45 P.M. on weekdays.

Operating the four centers until the end of the school year is expected to cost about $150,000. The cost would increase if more centers are opened, as some members of the school board have requested.

The program is attractive to police officials, Mr. Lytle said, because they will not have to do extensive paperwork on the truant students. The police will check students for criminal records, but the bulk of the recordkeeping will be done by school district personnel.

"Having a truancy program in place gives the police department leverage in terms of picking up kids'' from popular gathering places, Mr. Lytle said. "Otherwise, there isn't much they can do.''

'Criminalizing Truancy'

The plan to handcuff students, a standard police procedure when transporting people taken into custody, has drawn some criticism, however.

Shelly Yanoff, the executive director of Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth, said her group has serious concerns about "criminalizing truancy'' by handcuffing students.

"A school district that doesn't have enough funds, allegedly, to provide kindergarten now is going to set up detention centers,'' Ms. Yanoff said. "It seems like that's not an appropriate use of resources.''

The group found that, at the truancy center operated last year, students "sat around for a couple of hours and were told to go back to their school,'' Ms. Yanoff said. The center also failed to determine why students were not in school and to follow up on attendance, she said.

But district officials have said the new centers will use computers to do a better job of tracking students. Most students also will stay all day, unless their parents pick them up.

Ms. Yanoff said she believes that much more should be done by individual schools to work with students and families to reduce truancy. The school district laid off 44 of its 45 truant officers last year because of budget problems.

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