Don't Be Late

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Twelve Boston public high schools are testing a tough new policy to promote student punctuality: They simply lock habitually late students out of school.

Some law-enforcement officials criticize the practice, saying it dumps unsupervised youngsters into the community. But proponents argue that the need for uninterrupted class time justifies the tactic. What's more, they say, students need to learn the importance of being on time. "In the real world, people lose jobs if they're not punctual, and that should be part of the training in high school," says Juliette Johnson, headmaster at Boston's 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 without a written excuse from a parent.

The system seems to be working, Johnson says. The number of persistently late students dropped during the first month of school from 145 to 45.

Patricia Tremblay, assistant headmaster at Boston High, has also seen tardiness decline since the 1,100-student school decided last year to lock out any student who shows up more than 20 minutes late without a legitimate excuse—even if it's the first offense. "This has worked great," Tremblay says. "When you see kids running to get into the building, you know you've had an impact."

Although the lockout strategy may be making life easier for educators, local police complain that it is only making their jobs more difficult by putting aimless teenagers on the streets. "They say they are trying to teach kids to be on time," says Captain Robert Dunford of the Boston Police Department. "But when you lock kids out, you put them back into the community where they get into trouble."

On any given school day, roughly 10 percent—or 6,000—of Boston public school students are absent from class. Many are truants—just how many district officials can't say. But they are responsible for a broad range of crimes, says Dunford, from minor disturbances to car theft, vandalism, and robbery.

Dunford concedes that he has no idea whether the hard-nosed tardiness policies have increased crime in the city, but he believes a better solution for the problem would be in-school detention for the chronically late.

The Boston school district recently created a task force to evaluate the effectiveness of the tough new measures. Among other things, the seven-member panel is looking at whether the policies are in fact making students more punctual.

Robert Mahaffey, a spokes-man for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, says Boston is one of many districts fighting student tardiness. It's important, he notes, for schools to create policies that get to the root of the problem. Some students may be late because of problems at home. Others may not have reliable transportation. Still others may just be too lazy to make it on time. "There's a need to find out why they are late," Mahaffey says.

—Jessica Portner

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