- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

A D.C. Council member says the city’s public school system violated the law by failing to submit an annual report on truancy, an urgent problem among city youth that has led to stricter monitoring and awareness campaigns across the District.

Council member Phil Mendelson, at-large Democrat, told D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson at an oversight hearing on Thursday that 287 pages of truancy data were not compliant with a 2010 law that calls for a crisp report on the serious problem, especially among high school freshmen.

The complaint was among multiple lines of stern questioning that Mr. Mendelson — chairman of the Committee on the Judiciary — hurled at Ms. Henderson on the intersection of school policy and potentially illegal behavior, including the procedure for reporting charges of sex abuse.

Mr. Mendelson took the chancellor to task over the way schools officials handled allegations of sexual abuse among first-graders at Randle Highlands Elementary School, an incident first reported by The Washington Times in early January that led to a prominent Southeast community activist being barred from the school’s grounds.

But Mr. Mendelson started the day with complaints about the school system’s missing truancy report from 2010-2011, the first year for which the system was required to submit such a report.

“We had not prepared a formal report, but we have the data available, which is what we sent to you,” Ms. Henderson said.

Mr. Mendelson was not satisfied with the package of data and also accused school officials of taking too long to set up a pilot program to deal with truancy.

“There’s much more that needs to happen,” Mr. Mendelson said. “Are we just to lose generations while the school system takes another five years to roll this out?”

Ms. Henderson said that would not be the case — the pilot program faced legal hurdles on information-sharing before it could launch — and pledged to provide the information Mr. Mendelson requested.

Council member Tommy Wells, Ward 6 Democrat, picked up the thread during the wide-ranging session before the Committee of the Whole, which was led by council Chairman Kwame R. Brown and explored issues such as educational parity across the city’s eight wards and a burgeoning plan to allow DCPS to charter new schools.

Mr. Wells said teachers and principals place themselves at risk of fines if they do not report 10 or more unexcused absences to the city’s Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA).

“This will impact their careers if they do not report,” Mr. Wells said, noting the reporting is mandatory. “It will impact your principals’ careers.”

Truancy has been a major talking point for city leaders in recent years, who warn that students are truant in the early grades and form a habit that intensifies by high school.

Last year, the council’s Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy found “chronic” offenders skipped school for a variety of reasons, including unsafe routes to and from home, bullying, teen dating violence and lack of Metro fares.

In a separate inquiry to the chancellor, Mr. Mendelson accused DCPS of flouting mandatory reporting rules after a woman informed officials at Randle Highlands that a first-grader who is a classmate of her nephew claimed another student had touched his “private parts.”

Officials concluded the allegations were unfounded, but Mr. Mendelson said DCPS waited for more than two months to acknowledge that the CFSA contacted the school official who looked into the matter, and not the other way around.

“I think that the school system once again circled the wagons and covered it up,” Mr. Mendelson said.

Ms. Henderson strongly objected to that characterization, saying she took on the matter when it was reported, and a miscommunication from CSFA led to the confusion over the sequence of reporting.

Mr. Mendelson said school officials could jeopardize an investigation by taking matters into their own hands, including directly contacting parents.

Ms. Henderson agreed but noted the law states a principal should have “reasonable cause” to suspect abuse before reporting it.

Nonetheless, Mr. Mendelson said, he has broad concerns about a reluctance to report cases of abuse.

“There is enormous pressure not to report,” he said. “Look at Penn State. When it was reported, it was reported through a grand jury indictment, and there were riots.”

Ms. Henderson said the incident at Randle Highlands escalated unnecessarily because the woman who brought up the allegations, Geraldine Washington, excessively interfered in a situation that did not involve her child, prompting the school to bar her from the campus.

In turn, Mr. Mendelson noted he should be allowed to review such “barring notices.”

The council, he said, is allowed to see juvenile justice records, yet he was rebuffed in his request for details about barring notices issued by DCPS during this school year.

“There are only 14,” he said.

• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at thowell@washingtontimes.com.

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