Chronic Truants Are Target of Vermont Law

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Children in Vermont who are habitually absent from school can be removed from their parents' custody and placed in foster-care programs under a juvenile-justice code revision recently approved by the state's legislature.

Officials in the state's education and social services departments have called the new law unduly harsh, ill-conceived, possibly unconstitutional, and unlikely to be vigorously enforced.

The officials, however, are not at all critical of a related legislative order to develop a system to get as many truants back into school as possible and to provide out-of-school alternatives for children who cannot adjust to a classroom environment.

Vermont legislators confronted the truancy issue during a special session in mid-July devoted to juvenile crime. The session was called in response to public uproar over the handling of a case in which two youths, aged 15 and 16, were charged with the rape of two 12-year-old girls and the murder of one of them.

The controversy erupted when it was discovered that the 15-year-old alleged assailant would have to be tried in juvenile court and, if convicted, would most likely be released from confinement on his 18th birthday.

The majority sentiment of the special session was to strengthen laws dealing with juvenile crime, and some legislators claimed truancy was an early warning sign of future delinquency, according to Marian M. Cummings, deputy commissioner of the state department of social and rehabilitative services.

"The bottom line of the legislation is that you can take a truant away from his family and home if a judge approves," Ms. Cummings said, "but I don't think there's a single judge in the state who would be willing to do that."

Removing a child from his family to prevent future truancy, she added, would most likely be an exercise in futility. "All we would be doing is moving a child with a record of not going to school from one location to another."

A task force developing guidelines for the processing of truants under the new law is considering a set of guiding principles that says some children might be better off on the job rather than in the classroom, according to Ms. Cummings.

"This is an acknowledgement that there exists a group of kids that we just can't keep in school, kids we don't know exactly what to do with," Ms. Cummings said. "I think there's nothing revolutionary about standing up and saying that schools simply don't have the resources and techniques to teach all children. It's being just plain honest."

Work experience gives some children a feeling of success, she explained. "If some of these kids can go out on the job and make some money, it might mark the first time they've had a feeling of being successful, after having been branded total failures in school."

Vol. 01, Issue 02, Page 18

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