It wasn't too long ago that a truant student like Darryl could do pretty much as he pleased. He could walk the streets in search of a soda, play video games till midafternoon, then play basketball as the rest of the neighborhood came home from school.
But Darryl's Huck Finn days may be ending. Here in Oklahoma City, truants are regularly picked up and deposited at holding centers until parents collect them. Parents of chronic truants can be fined, and some have even been sent to jail.
"If my mother knew she could be thrown in jail, she'd lean on me," says Darryl (not his real name), cooling his heels in a holding center here. "I like school. I just missed my bus."
Whether Darryl is a truant or just a poor sprinter, he's facing a much tougher attitude toward children who ditch class.
Like other cities around the country, Oklahoma City is employing a tough carrot-and-stick approach that combines parent and student counseling with stiff penalties for those who chronically disobey. With enrollments rising and dropout rates falling dramatically, it's a model for what cities can do to head off the problems that can lead to illiteracy, poverty, and crime.
"It's a wake-up call for everyone," says Kathy Christie, a policy analyst at the nonpartisan Education Commission of the States in Denver. "Compulsory education is the law. If you have a parent who excuses everything, who has a child sitting at home watching cartoons all the time, then it's time to take that parent to court."
Around the US, the problem of chronic truancy has proved difficult. Federal law requires compulsory education for children, but few cities devote the resources or personnel necessary to address the problem. Even fewer cities pursue criminal charges against parents, as law-enforcement agencies do in Oklahoma.
"The vast majority of the truancy cases [here] are elementary kids, and quite a few of them are in first through third grade," says Debra Forshee, executive director of a nonprofit agency that administers Oklahoma City's two truant centers, called Truancy Habits Reduced Increasing Valuable Education (THRIVE). "You can't tell me that child doesn't want to go to school. Little kids really like school. It's only when they have missed school and fallen behind that they start to not like school."
For Mrs. Forshee, that's not just a pity; it's a crime. In Oklahoma County, which includes Oklahoma City, some 1,080 truant youths were brought to centers last year. Of these, 21 percent were not even enrolled in school. Statistics from the current school year, however, give a sense of what a tougher approach may yield.
Of the 157 parents charged for violating the compulsory education act:
*Forty-three cases have been dismissed, when parents complied with orders to get their children back to school.
*Four parents have been fined, with penalties ranging from $170 to $650.
*One has served 23 days in jail.
*Eighteen have failed to appear and face warrants for their arrest.
*Dropouts have decreased from 13.9 percent to 11.8 percent in Oklahoma City. (The national average is 5.7 percent.)
Oklahoma City is not alone. Tulsa, Okla., has been prosecuting parents of truants for nearly 10 years, bringing down dropout rates 45 percent and decreasing daytime burglary rates 22 percent. And in Corpus Christi, Texas, some officials say the city's truant centers have cut juvenile crime there by 35 percent during the past five years.
On the morning that Darryl was picked up, the THRIVE center was unusually packed. In one closed office, a parent is listening to the various services that exist to keep her child engaged in education and under control. In the main room, the boys are discussing why they think school is unnecessary, if not outright boring.
"I don't like school," says Charles (not his real name). That said, he enjoys playing on the computer, and someday he'd like to be an engineer, an FBI agent, or if all else fails, a fry cook at McDonald's. Of course, his main goal is getting a nice stereo. To do that, "you just work."
"But you know a lot of fast-food restaurants these days require a rsum and a high school diploma," says Forshee, passing by the table. "These days, you can't even flip burgers if you can't read." At this, Charles falls silent.
Across the room, Sheriff's deputy Darron Neals says the center gets everything that society has to offer, from sweet goof-offs to much tougher characters. But in most cases, the parents set the tone for their children's behavior.
"In the first five seconds, you know this parent doesn't care at all," says Deputy Neals, shaking his head. "If you tell them, you'll spend time in jail if your kid doesn't go to school, and they'll say 'Fine and dandy, I need time to myself.' But when you say we could fine you, they'll say, 'Oh, I'll be down there in a minute.' "
For school officials, the tougher truancy approach has been a great success. "The beauty of this program is that it identifies students who none of us even knew existed," says Guy Sconzo, assistant superintendent of Oklahoma City Public Schools. Last year, attendance rates were between 85 percent and 92 percent. Now, there's not a school below 90 percent.
"If kids feel they're learning and they're wanted, then truancy isn't a problem," says Ms. Christie. "The model programs are where there's no need for these truancy programs to exist."