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Boston High Schools Try Locking Out Chronically Tardy

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Twelve Boston public high schools are testing get-tough policies to prompt student punctuality: They simply lock habitually late students out of school.

The practice, which has come in for criticism of late from some law-enforcement officials who worry about leaving unsupervised students on the streets, is now undergoing district review. Proponents, meanwhile, say that the need for uninterrupted classroom time makes the tactic imperative.

Each of the 12 high schools has its own tardiness policy, with most allowing lesser penalties, such as calling a parent about chronic tardiness.

Principals and students are facing 2003, when Massachusetts will require new, more rigorous state tests for graduation. Besides wanting to get students into class on time for more academic preparation, principals say they implemented the policy to instruct students on the importance of promptness in the work world.

"In the real world, people lose jobs if they're not punctual, and that should be part of the training in high school," said Juliette Johnson, the headmaster at Brighton High School. Students at the 1,040-student school are barred from entering the building if they are more than 25 minutes late more than three times and don't have a written note from a parent.

Getting Results

Ms. Johnson said the system seems to be working: The number of students who were persistently tardy in the past month has dropped from 145 to 45, she said.

Patricia Tremblay, the assistant headmaster at Boston High School, said she also has seen a decrease in tardiness since the 1,100-student school adopted a policy last year to exclude students who are more than 20 minutes late--even the first time. Administrators can exempt a late-arriving student if he or she had an appointment, she said.

"This has worked great. When you see kids running to get into the building, you know you've had an impact," Ms. Tremblay said. "The kids have come a long distance, and they want to get in," she said.

While it may be an encouraging sight to see students trying to sneak into rather than out of school, some local police officers say these "lockout" policies are only making their jobs more difficult by relocating more teenagers to the streets.

"They say they are trying to teach kids to be on time, but when you lock kids out, you put them back into the community where they get into trouble," said Capt. Robert Dunford, a district commander with the Boston Police Department.

On a given school day, 10 percent, or about 6,000, of Boston's public school students are absent, the district says. How many of them are truant is unknown.

Truants are responsible for a range of crimes, from minor disturbances to motor vehicle theft, vandalism, and robbery, Capt. Dunford said. But the officer conceded that he doesn't know whether the tardiness policies have increased crimes in the city. He argues that a better solution would be in-school detention for the chronically late.

Report Coming

The district, which has no systemwide lockout policy for excessive tardiness, recently set up a task force to evaluate the lockout measures that individual high schools began to adopt in 1994, said Tracey Lynch, a spokeswoman for the 64,000-district.

The seven-member task force will look at whether the policies are, in fact, spurring more punctuality or more truancy. The task force, which is expected to issue a report to the superintendent by the end of the year, is also planning to consider later starting times for high school classes. The district has 19 high schools.

Boston is one of many districts that are looking at creative ways to fight tardiness, said Robert Mahaffey, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

When schools design their tardiness policies, it's important to consider the reasons behind the students' excuses, he said. "Do they have problems at home? Do they have transportation? There's a need to find out why they are late."

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