- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2010

Like Ferris Bueller and his friends, many teens consider playing hooky a rite of passage - a day off from high school for high jinks that may or may not lead to criminal activities. But when thousands of grade schoolers become chronic truants, D.C. lawmakers say its time to raise the red flag.

The D.C. Council is scheduled to vote June 29 on legislation that would tighten truancy requirements and quicken the pace at which child welfare and law enforcement authorities intervene on behalf of truant youths.

Some school officials complain, however, that parents and the general public have been shut out of discussions.

The pending legislation, introduced by council member Tommy Wells, would replace rules made just last year by the Board of Education, which allow students to accrue as many as 25 unexcused absences before child welfare and judicial authorities intervene. Mr. Wells’ legislation cuts the number of days to 10.

With an estimated 8,000 kindergartners through fifth graders accumulating eight or more unexcused absences last school year, this is a “crisis” the city can no longer ignore, Mr. Wells said this week.

“Do we have a crisis?” Mr. Wells asked D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee during a daylong hearing on the D.C. Public Schools-Washington Teachers Union contract.

The chancellor neither agreed nor disagreed with Mr. Wells characterization, but she said there is “a lot of work to do” to curb truancy.

“We put significant resources into hiring attendance counselors,” Ms. Rhee said, and there are protocols that call for teachers and administrators to contact parents before students become habitual truants. But “a lot of people haven’t been properly trained or are aware” of them.

The chancellor also said that teachers engaging students and teachers relationships with family are key links to improving students attendance.

Sharing information among various agencies and adults involved in youths day-to-day interactions could help avert future risky behavior, Mr. Wells said.

“In a practical example, a youth may have skipped a few days of school, been kicked out of a recreation center for a fight, and been stopped by police for riding in a stolen vehicle,” he said June 15, after lawmakers gave initial approval to his legislation. “Taken alone, each of these instances are concerning, but may not raise all the red flags needed. Current law prohibits [Department of Youth and Rehabilitative Services] and the police from alerting anyone to a potential problem through sharing information about the youth with his teacher, coach, and pastor, for example. This [legislation] breaks down those barriers.”

School board member Mark Jones said the board approved its rules last year without parental input and without much weigh-in from the public.

“I abstained from voting because we didnt have enough information … No testimony from the public or anyone else,” Mr. Jones told The Washington Times. “I agree with council member Wells that 25 days is too many days, but maybe we should have some benchmarks at 5 days or 10 days.”

• Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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