Joe Sacco steers a white van through Patterson Park in this city’s Highlandtown neighborhood, a blue-collar enclave of brick row houses. The park is prime hangout territory for truants, and the 62-year-old Baltimore native and retired police officer is on a “sweep” to find them. It’s just after 9 a.m on Tuesday last week. All is quiet.
“I think they may have gotten the message,” says Mr. Sacco, who leads the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center. “We’ve been hitting this area pretty hard.”
Then a crackle of chatter heats up the radio. “We’ve got about 10 of them,” an officer reports. “They’re running.”
Mr. Sacco swings the van around and hits the gas. He pulls up at the corner of Lynnwood and Pratt as officers question students who should be in middle school. Each is patted down, and the police take their names and identification. Mr. Sacco calls the information back to the truancy center, located in a plain brick building near the Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Opened last November, the center was born of frustration with truants, who police say commit about 60 percent of the city’s daytime crime. Since then, the center, which operates with a $500,000 annual budget, has picked up about 1,000 truants. Just over 20 percent of those students are now attending school more regularly.
On an average school day, Mr. Sacco says, about 5,000-or 5.5 percent-of the 90,438 students in the Baltimore public schools are considered truant.
Before the Baltimore district, the mayor’s office, and Mr. Sacco teamed up to establish the center, truants were taken to school or home, where they would often just slip out the back door again. Now, counselors from the school system and the city’s departments of social services and juvenile justice work with them, in a “one-stop shopping” approach, to address the family, social, and academic problems that can lead to truancy.
‘I’m Not the Enemy’
Inside the center, the 10 truants picked up this morning are filling out paperwork. Some look bored, others amused. One counselor works with a lanky teenager in baggy jeans who has not been registered at any school since he was suspended last year. “I’m not the enemy,” the counselor says softly. “I’m trying to help you.”
The young man buries his head in his hands. A few minutes later, a police officer abruptly ends the session-the young man has violated probation for a criminal charge and is led away in handcuffs.
In another room, a teenage girl is getting grilled by her grandmother. A counselor calms the grandmother down, and the two sign an agreement. The next time the girl cuts class, she will perform community service. The counselor will monitor her attendance for the next two months.
“I hope I never see you again,” he says.