Kids skip class - and parents go to jail?

As federal law spurs schools to curtail truancy, some use a get-tough approach with parents.

The headlines read like a version of "Scared Straight" for adults: "Parents arrested over truant kids." The roundups in the past six weeks - 11 arrests in Detroit, four in New Mexico, and 19 in Knox County, Tenn. - are the most eye-catching aspect of a get-tough approach to school attendance. But the goal is to get students back to school, not to put their parents behind bars, school and law enforcement officials say. While some parents have served short jail terms for contributing to their children's truancy, most are sentenced to perform community service or pay fines if they fail to respond to less-punitive measures.

Truancy-prevention programs that are considered models tend to have one thing in common - collaboration among schools, parents, and law enforcement to address a range of underlying problems. Some communities have been doing this for decades, responding to research that shows truancy is a gateway to dropping out of school and crimes such as drug use, vandalism, and robbery.

But in recent years, the federal accountability requirements of No Child Left Behind have pressured more school districts to try to replicate successful methods.

"NCLB has called attention to the fact that schools can't do all of this alone, and if they are going to be held accountable, they need to form partnerships - they have to go beyond their own walls, to the parents, to the community," says Linda Peterson, interim director of the Institute for Responsive Education, a group in Boston that fosters such partnerships nationwide. "The idea is to look at parent engagement as a strategy toward student success, not as just an add-on program."

Sixty percent of school attendance officers in Tennessee said parental disengagement and neglect were among the leading causes of truancy, according to a report last year by the state legislature's Office of Education Accountability. But school systems have a way to go, too: More than half the attendance officers reported having excessive caseloads, and they said contact information for families was incorrect nearly 30 percent of the time.

Parents' groups periodically object to truancy crackdowns, accusing schools of not doing enough to inform parents, keep schools safe, and ensure that the process is not influenced by racial bias.

"Quite often parents only hear from a school when it's gotten to a very negative point, instead of having that relationship built up from the beginning," Ms. Peterson says. That's why she winces at the idea of arresting parents, although she acknowledges that in some extreme cases it might be necessary in order to enforce the law.

Prosecutors in Detroit agree that arrests should be the last resort. When schools refer cases of chronic truancy to them, they try to bring together the family and school officials to find out the circumstances and refer parents or children for help. Out of 1,200 students who went through this truancy program last year, about 75 percent got back into school immediately, says Robert Heimbuch, chief of the Juvenile Court Division in the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.

But a small portion of parents simply don't respond until they are forced into court. "For a lot of these particular parents, what's alarming is you have multiple children in the family ... [who are] out of school for large periods of time," Mr. Heimbuch says.

About 30 parents in Wayne County recently received letters informing them of warrants for their arrest, and 11 came in for arraignment on Feb. 7. The letters targeted parents of students under age 11 who had more than 33 unexcused absences (older students are generally held responsible for themselves). If the parents plead guilty or are convicted of the misdemeanor charge, a judge can mete out various punishments, including up to 90 days in jail. As far as Heimbuch recalls, only one parent in recent years has ended up serving jail time.

"We've tried to make attendance everybody's business," says Sylvia Hollifield, divisional director for student assistance and intervention programs in the Detroit Public Schools.

About 45 attendance officers investigate student absences and visit homes to talk with parents. But she also has started to hear from neighbors who see that parents aren't sending children to school, and she urges businesses to report when kids are loitering during school hours. The goal, she says is to improve students' attendance - and in turn, their achievement and their prospects.

By 1918, all states had compulsory education laws on the books. NCLB includes the first requirement that all public schools report truancy rates, but there is no uniform way to measure them. In some states, three unexcused absences count as truancy, while in others, a student can be out 10 or 15 times. Laws about how to handle truancy also vary widely, with sanctions including everything from revoking a teen's driver's license to reducing a family's welfare payments.

A number of programs have shown impressive results. In Citrus County, Fla., where arresting parents is sometimes used as a last resort, chronic truancy (21 or more unexcused absences) in middle schools dropped from 16.3 percent to 10 percent between 1997 and 2003. For high-schoolers and elementary school students, the truancy rates were cut in half.

At the ACT NOW Truancy Program in Pima County, Ariz., case manager Rosa Robles says she meets a lot of parents who aren't inclined to change. "Some blame everybody but themselves for their problems," she says. Occasionally, that leads them to court.

But the parents who do follow through with education programs or counseling are often thankful for the help, she says. "They learn how to talk to their teen at a different level or in a different tone - just to talk to them instead of screaming at them for doing something wrong."

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