PROVO, UTAH — With his baggy pants, loose-fitting shirt, and pierced ears, Jeff Tyler looks like a typical suburban American teenager.
It's his juvenile record that sets him apart.
By 17, he was smoking, drinking, and had been charged with shoplifting. He was skipping school so much that a court in Provo, Utah, strapped an electronic monitor on his ankle to keep tabs on him.
Then the court did something that began his turnaround. It sent him to a tough-love truancy program that makes students finish a long list of tasks - such as writing a response to "The Diary of Anne Frank" - to get free.
This program and others like it are part of an emerging national search for answers to truancy - one of the fastest growing and most stubborn problems in America's schools.
Whether experiments like the one in Provo succeed may determine a lot about public safety: Skipping school is often a gateway to crime.
"Truancy is the biggest enemy of a kid completing high school," says one Boston headmaster. "And without high school, what can they do?"
In 1994, there were 36,400 truancy court cases - a 67 percent increase since 1985.
In New York City's public school system, the nation's largest, about 150,000 of 1 million students are absent on a typical day. Officials don't know how many have a legitimate excuse.
In some cities, nearly one-third of public-school students don't show up on a given day. And, as has long been the case, truancy officers can't keep pace with all the school-cutting kids. In Detroit, for instance, just 40 officers had to investigate 66,440 chronic-absenteeism cases during the 1994-95 school year.
But things are changing in the realm of truancy.
In the old days, truants like Jeff were thrown into adult prisons and were often assaulted by inmates.
That era ended with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which Congress passed in 1974. It barred juveniles from being locked up with adults. But it also left law-enforcement officers with few alternatives. If no juvenile programs were in place, kids were usually allowed to roam free, because police had nowhere to take them.
And roam they did - and do. As schools have become more dangerous, kids are more reluctant to attend. Today, 1 in 5 black and Hispanic children say the fear of crime keeps them from going to class.
Yet, parents play a role too. It seems some aren't very committed to education. "When I was growing up, my mother thought missing school was about the gravest sin there was," says Gerry Sullivan, headmaster at Boston's English High.
But now, he says, parents send their kids on errands in the morning and then figure it's too late to send them to school. And other kids, who are parents themselves, work to support their families.
It all adds up to a subtle slippage of the got-to-go-to-school ethic.
"You ask some kids why they weren't in school yesterday, and they look at you like you're weird," Mr. Sullivan says.
By the mid-1990s, there were so many truants on the streets -many of whom were committing crimes - that towns and cities began to act.
"There was an up-spike in juvenile crime, and truancy became a hot-button subject," says David Steinhart, director of the juvenile justice program at Commonweal, a think tank in Marin County, Calif. "Then an explosion of right-wing and left-wing politics spilled over into truancy."
From Harvard, Ill., to Los Angeles, many lawmakers are taking the get-tough approach to truancy.
In Harvard, a rural blue-collar town of 7,000 close to the Wisconsin border, local officials hail their earlier crackdowns on errant teenagers. Underage smokers caught lighting up can be fined $50. And fist fights can land combatants a $100 fine. So earlier this month, the town joined states and cities taking a similar approach to truancy: School-skipping students can now be fined between $25 and $500, depending on how many days they've missed.
Sending a signal
This sends the signal that the town "isn't going to put up with a lot of nonsense," says Harvard Mayor Ralph Henning. "Sometimes, when you're 15, you don't appreciate the value of education and what the loss of it will do to you down the road."
In Nevada, meanwhile, truants can be fined $100 and have their driver's licenses suspended for 30 days if they have three unexcused absences. The fine is returned if students have good attendance records for the next 60 days.
"We felt that we had to take some fairly aggressive actions," says state Sen. Ernie Adler, a Democrat from Carson City. He says smaller, rural school districts in Nevada report anecdotally that attendance has jumped and fewer students are dropping out since the law went into effect last year.
In Los Angeles, authorities say a daytime-curfew law has shown promising results. It prohibits students under 18 from being off campus without permission between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. And it fines truants as much as $675 for multiple violations, although offenders can work off their fines through community service.
The Los Angeles Police Department found that school-hour crime rates plummeted the year after the law went into effect in 1996. Burglaries declined about 25 percent. Shoplifting dropped 33 percent.
But in many other cities, including Provo, Utah, truancy programs aim to intervene early and prevent young recalcitrants like Jeff Tyler from turning into criminals.
In some cases, the conservative and liberal approaches complement each other. Now police who crack down on truants have someplace to take the kids besides home.
Jeff was first assigned to the truancy program by the juvenile court. When he arrived he was a "nightmare," says Raquel Richardson, one of his counselors at the alternative Independence High School.
This mouthy kid with wavy, shoulder-length hair was a rebel in a conservative community that favors politeness and short-cropped hair. Even his parents had given up on trying to reform him. When teens are first assigned to Independence's Truancy and In-School Suspension program, they stay for one day. The second time, they're there for three days. The third time they're in for five.
The program was started in 1996 when Independence High principal Greg Hudnall and juvenile court Judge Kay Lindsay combined forces to help kids before their records became criminal.
Each day, teachers put up a long list of tasks on the chalkboard: Write a paper on Leonardo da Vinci's work, do a fractions worksheet, or pen a paper on Babe Ruth's life. Kids who don't finish the list must come back the next day.
When Jeff first arrived, he spent much of the time trying to get out. He bolted out of an emergency exit so many times that teachers moved the exit.
Then he started trying to finish the list. "It wasn't that I wanted to do the work," he says. "I just wanted to get out."
This year, the program has taken in more than 800 students. Almost a third of them return twice, but less than 10 percent come back for Round 3. But Jeff was in and out of the center for four months, until something clicked. "Everyone just kind of took time to let him know we cared," says Ms. Richardson.
Jeff's grade point average has gone from 0.9 to 3.79. Last week, Judge Lindsay wiped Jeff's record clean. "She said I was the best success she'd ever seen, and that she'll remember me," he says proudly.
US truancy and its effects
* Students missed school about 13 percent of the time in 1996-97 in the 30 biggest school districts.
* In at least seven states - Florida, Nevada, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota -kids must have good school attendance to get a driver's license.
* Milwaukee found that truancy is a drag on the student body grade point average in high schools. The average was 1.7 (a C-minus) in the 1996-97 school year. For students with 90 percent or better attendance, GPA jumped to 2.6 (a B-minus).
* After a three-week truancy sweep in Van Nuys, Calif., shoplifting arrests fell 60 percent.
Sources: Bain & Co., US Department of Justice, National Conference of State Legislatures.