- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 18, 2004

Truancy is rampant in D.C. public schools and rising in some suburban schools, placing youths on a path to delinquency and future hardship.

Spingarn High School in Northeast, for example, had a 56.3 percent truancy rate — meaning that 256 of its 455 students had at least 15 consecutive unexcused absences — in the 2001-2002 school year, the most recent period for which complete data are available.

Montgomery, Prince George’s and Fairfax counties had a total of 5,712 truants in the 1999-2000 school year and 7,113 in 2002-2003 — a 24.5 percent increase. As a percentage of the counties’ total school populations, the truancy rate rose from 1.3 percent to 1.6 percent during that four-year period.

“I see kids in trouble who are charged with delinquency, and frequently truancy is a part of the problem,” says Prince George’s County Circuit Court Judge C. Philip Nichols Jr., who is assigned to juvenile court.

“Half the people in jail in America today do not have a high school diploma, and if we don’t do something, it’s going to get a whole lot worse. Life is a whole lot tougher without an education,” Judge Nichols says.

For students such as Gujuan Lee, 17, of Fort Washington, truancy puts them in a downward spiral of diminished expectations and opportunities.

An average student at Friendly High School, Gujuan began skipping classes last year to hang out with a girlfriend. He was expelled for truancy, then bounced from job to job and drifted into delinquency.

Today, Gujuan sits in the Prince George’s County jail awaiting trial on six counts of attempted murder. His youngest brother, Hassan, 9, is following in his footsteps, having missed weeks of school this year despite his grandmother’s efforts to help him.

Local jurisdictions have grappled with truancy through school policies, court directives and police programs to keep children in school and out of trouble. Some school districts — Montgomery County among them — have kept track of truants for years, while the District has only partial, unreliable records.

For the first time, the federal government is requiring all school districts to track and reduce the number of truants or else lose funding under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act.

The U.S. Department of Education has no national statistics on truancy, however.

“We know that not everybody is keeping [truancy data]. It’s hard to keep. We’d like to work with schools and see what they need to keep it before we start discussing penalties,” says William Modzeleski, associate deputy undersecretary of the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

“There’s been no legislation on collecting truancy data — period. No Child Left Behind is the first,” he says.

Under the No Child Left Behind Act, local jurisdictions must track truancy school-by-school and report it that way, instead of by county, district or grade level.

But local school districts use different definitions of truancy, which could hinder jurisdictions’ comparisons of data on absent students, The Washington Times has learned.

For example, students in Virginia are classified as “habitually truant” when they miss seven nonconsecutive days of school without an excuse. In Maryland, it takes nine nonconsecutive days to get that label.

The District, which until the 2002-2003 school year had designated students as being truant after 15 consecutive unexcused absences, now identifies truants after 10 consecutive unexcused absences.

“There is no standard definition for truancy at any level,” Mr. Modzeleski says.

Before passage of No Child Left Behind, Montgomery County tracked truancy rates countywide and Fairfax County tracked truancy by grade levels. The act aims to standardize truancy tracking to help the Education Department assess the scope of the problem nationally.

“We can’t say [truancy] is a growing problem if we don’t have the data,” Mr. Modzeleski says.

“States are going to have to collect this information. It’s going to push schools to find ways to bring those students back into school. …You can no longer hide these kids,” he says. “This is waking schools up.”

By the numbers

The awakening has been a slow process. Even though No Child Left Behind is more than 2 years old, state schools spokesmen Bill Reinhard in Maryland and Charles Pyle in Virginia were unaware of the law’s truancy requirements until The Times inquired about them.

Mr. Reinhard said Maryland had raw data on school-by-school truancy rates but did not report it that way. Maryland Deputy Superintendent Ron Peiffer said the school-by-school data were “somewhere down in the bowels” of the state education department building in Baltimore.

D.C. school officials, including Diane Powell, student-services director, did not know how many students have been truant over the past few years. Complete data were available only for the 2001-2002 school year, although The Times requested data from the 1999-2000 school year through the 2002-2003 school year.

What’s more, the District’s 2001-2002 truancy records were complete only at the citywide level, not school-by-school as required by No Child Left Behind. The records also are unreliable because they have a “25 percent error rate,” D.C. school officials say.

Most metropolitan school districts say truancy rates are highest among high schools. Suburban school districts generally report that truancy is not a major problem; the District and Baltimore say it is.

The D.C. public school system reported that 5,790 of its 86,449 students (6.7 percent) were truant during the 2001-2002 year. At that time, 1,836 of the District’s 12,022 high school students (15.3 percent) were truant.

Truancy in the District was an element in the fatal shooting of student James Richardson, 17, inside Southeast’s Ballou High School on Feb. 2.

James’ father, William Patterson, said he had filed a transfer request and removed his son from Ballou during the six weeks before the shooting because his son feared for his life. School officials, including former Principal Art Bridges, said they had not received a transfer request from Mr. Patterson.

However, D.C. school officials have yet to explain how a student could miss six consecutive weeks of school without triggering an inquiry into his whereabouts. In the meantime, the school system has fired Mr. Bridges, citing problems with his administration of Ballou.

City and suburbs

In Baltimore, truancy decreased only slightly during the past five years and remains rampant.

Baltimore schools reported that 15,354 of 103,000 students (15 percent) were truant in the 1999-2000 school year. For 2002-2003, 13,671 of 91,930 students (14.9 percent) were truant. Last school year, 7,123 of Baltimore’s 22,782 high school students were habitually absent — a truancy rate of 31.3 percent.

The more populous suburban school systems reported lower truancy rates than those of District and Baltimore, although thousands of students in the suburbs habitually skip school.

Prince George’s County reported that 3,735 of 131,059 students (2.8 percent) were truant in the 1999-2000 school year. About 4,142 of 136,275 students (3 percent) were truant last year. Among high school students, 3,148 of 38,893 — or 8.1 percent — were truant last year.

Montgomery County, the 18th-largest school system in the country, had 1,298 truants among 130,720 students (1 percent) in 1999-2000. This past school year, it was 1,944 truants among 138,983 students — about 1.4 percent. About 3.3 percent of Montgomery’s high school students — 1,394 of 41,825 — were truant during 2002-2003.

“We don’t have a major problem with habitual truancy. When you compare Montgomery County with other systems in Maryland, I would have to say it’s not a major problem,” says the county’s student services director, Min Leong.

Fairfax County, the country’s 12th-largest school district, recorded 679 truants among 152,952 students in 1999-2000. This past school year, Fairfax had 1,027 truants among 162,585 students — about 0.6 percent. Among the county’s 46,174 high schoolers, 904 — or 2 percent — were truant last year.

“We have 166,000 students, and a thousand of them are truant. You look at that and it’s pretty low,” says Eleanor Barnes, the county’s director of student services. “While we don’t neglect the problem, even if it is pretty small, we don’t consider it to be a major problem in Fairfax County because we are on top of it.”

The most recent truancy rates for Arlington and Alexandria schools are low — .02 percent and 1.7 percent, respectively — and officials there credit aggressive programs.


It started with skipping

Gujuan Lee didn’t set out to become a criminal. He didn’t join a gang or engage in antisocial behavior. He just skipped school — a lot.

“I just didn’t like it,” the 17-year-old says of his experience at Friendly High School in Prince George’s County during the 2001-2002 school year. He had transferred there from Churchill High School in Montgomery County.

Gujuan, who has attention-deficit disorder, says he felt challenged by Churchill’s curriculum but was frustrated by Friendly’s lack of programs for learning-disabled students. He eventually dropped out.

On Feb. 18, he was involved in an altercation with a group of young men in Fort Washington. About an hour later, Gujuan and a friend approached the group.

When Gujuan pointed out his assailant, his friend drew a handgun and fired into the crowd, wounding one man, charging documents state. The man survived his wounds.

Gujuan was charged with six counts of attempted murder and illegal possession of a firearm. His case is scheduled to go to trial next month.

The oldest of six children, Gujuan has a sister who regularly skips classes at Friendly High School. Two other siblings, Hassan and Akira, 7, have been in and out of schools in the District and Prince George’s County this school year.

The gang factor

“Some children truly feel that the streets are better than school, whether they’re drug-involved or not engaged at school,” says Ivy Leischman, a Montgomery County pupil-personnel worker for the past eight years.

Such school employees, also known as attendance officers, work specifically with truants to help them stay in school.

Ms. Leischman says students in elementary and middle school who become truant usually do so to escape a difficult family situation, while high school truants are lured by gangs, substance abuse or sex.

“Skipping parties” that include all those factors are common, says Mrs. Powell, director of D.C. schools’ student services.

Gangs, especially among Hispanic youths, have become a major regional concern. According to Fairfax County police statistics, about 680 middle and high school students belong to gangs. Fairfax County police estimate there are 4,300 gang members in Northern Virginia, including 1,131 with known addresses in the county.

An estimated 60 percent of gang members are in high school or junior high, says Sgt. Greg Smith, head of the Fairfax County Gang Task Force. But school officials and police authorities differ over whether gang members attend school.

“Generally, they do go to school most of the time,” says Virginia Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore, who formed a statewide anti-gang task force in the last year.

But Michael Murn, a resource officer for Herndon High School in Fairfax County, disagrees.

“I’m telling you they’re not in school. … The moment they’re identified, they’re put up for expulsion,” he says.

Fixing the problem

Expulsion is one of several strategies local school systems use to address truants.

Montgomery officials recently implemented a truancy-intervention program that involves officials in police, family services, health and human services, child welfare and juvenile-justice agencies. Pupil-personnel workers examine a school’s efforts to inform parents about their child’s absences and return the student to class.

“This is a holistic way to look at the needs of a student who is habitually truant. …By the time it gets to this level, these are pretty complex cases,” Mr. Leong says. “With the younger child, it’s probably going to be family. With the older child, it’s probably going to be that the child is totally disengaged.”

A similar program in Fairfax County gives attendance officers discretion over whether to send truants to court or to “diversionary training,” which aims to educate students on the consequences of truancy before prosecutorial action is taken.

Before, “every kid had to appear before a judge,” says Eleanor Barnes, director of Fairfax’s student services. “It was really taxing our court system.”

Meanwhile, Judge Nichols of Prince George’s County is advocating “alternative” education for truants and other school-age offenders.

He lobbied Maryland state lawmakers for two years to establish the Juvenile Justice Alternative High School, nicknamed the “Judge’s School,” in Bladensburg. It opened in February 2003.

Suspended or expelled students in ninth through 12th grades are ordered to the alternative school, which he says is modeled after one in Texas. One-third of 120 students are on probation; the remaining two-thirds have been sent there by school boards from other schools, Judge Nichols says.

“There are only three ways out,” he says. “You graduate, you behave long enough to return to your old school or we send you someplace else a whole lot less pleasant.”



Click to Read More

Click to Hide