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Study finds chronic truancy in D.C. schools starts early

Bullying, safety concerns among reasons given

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WASHINGTON | Thirteen percent of D.C. high school students missed at least 15 days of classes without a valid excuse during the first half of this school year, according to a report released Thursday.

The D.C. Council's Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy found these "chronic truants" skipped school for a variety of reasons, including unsafe routes to and from home, bullying, teen dating violence, lack of proper attire or not having Metro fare.

"The thing that really jumped out at me is that truancy is sometimes a symptom of a lot of social problems and crises families are dealing with at home," said council member Sekou Biddle, at-large Democrat who chairs the committee.

Police picked up 3,700 truant students and returned them to school during the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year, according to the committee. It also found youth accounted for 25 percent of Metro Transit Police's 2,012 arrests last year, with many of the crimes occurring between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m.

A student is considered truant if he or she misses 60 percent of the school day without a valid excuse. The problem has been a major talking point for city leaders, who deemed the issue "extremely urgent" in light of improved data on school absences and increased reports of violence by youth, particularly in and around Metro stations.

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown created the special committee in January to study increasing truancy rates. Citing "the enormity" of the truancy problem, the committee drafted an interim report that examines the causes of truancy, potential social and legislative solutions and a look at how other states and cities handled the problem.

Many students are truant in the early grades, forming a habit that intensifies by high school; almost half of the students who chalked up 10 or more unexcused absences in the ninth grade failed to graduate in four years, the report said.

Over his or her lifetime, each high school dropout will cost taxpayers $292,000 in terms of lower tax revenues, public assistance benefits and incarceration costs, according to the report.

Several legislative remedies are on the table, including a bill introduced this month by council member David A. Catania, at-large independent, that seeks to detect early signs of trouble among youth.

"It really gets to the heart of the behavioral and mental health problems plaguing a lot of families," Mr. Biddle said of the legislation, titled the South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial Act of 2011.

Also, the committee plans to look into whether public schools use "lockout" policies that prevent tardy students from entering the school for the day, a practice the committee deemed "not acceptable."

Mr. Biddle was appointed to the council and must run for his seat in a special election on April 26, However, Thursday's report allowed the committee "to accomplish at least one benchmark," Mr. Biddle said.

The committee could not gather a quorum for mark-ups and a vote on the report Friday, but it is expected to approve the findings early next week.

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