MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and with spring officially in the house today, we're coming out to play. Right now, we're going to hear about some people who really shouldn't be coming out to play. They should be in school. Truancy is a big problem in the district and leaders and officials are coming together to figure out how to encourage students to attend school. Education reporter Kavitha Cardoza joins us now to talk about the issue. Hi, Kavitha.
MS. KAVITHA CARDOZA
Hi Rebecca, it's like this awful feeling of déjà vu. Three years ago, I worked on a three-part series on truancy and the number of students cutting classes was exactly the same. Here's Hosanna Mahaley, the district State Superintendent of Education.
MS. HOSANNA MAHALEY
Last year, nearly 12,000, that is 20 percent of public school children across the District of Columbia were truant for 15 days or more.
Twenty percent, a fifth of all students are truant?
Yes. And the numbers might actually be higher if you count the students who miss fewer than 15 days, those who attend part of the day and, of course, if you don't get caught.
So why are these students missing class?
Well, there are so many different reasons. This is what Judith Sandalow with Children's Law Center says.
MS. JUDITH SANDALOW
Truancy is a symptom. It's like having a sore throat. You can't give yourself a lozenge if what you really have is strep throat.
Experts believe truancy is like an early warning sign for issues related to mental health or not feeling safe. Perhaps students have to look after younger siblings or work or they feel embarrassed about how poorly they're doing in school. Listen to Judge Zoe Bush from D.C. Superior Court.
JUDGE ZOE BUSH
I can tell as a truancy Judge that I get 15 and 16-year-olds who are reading at a third and fourth-grade level.
Another reason, says Kaya Henderson the head of D.C. Public Schools, is students are just bored in class.
MS. KAYA HENDERSON
If the instruction that's happening in that classroom is not engaging and relevant, you want to pluck your eyelashes out and our kids are in those rooms sometimes over and over again all day so I get it.
So when these students are missing school, missing class, what are they doing?
I've spoken to several for the series and most of the time they don't see the point of school. Being outside seems so much more interesting.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 2
If you have a car, you can go wherever you want to go. I know some people who went to, like, Six Flags during school.
IDENTIFIED FEMALE 3
I mean, they might catch you three out of ten chances, but the ratio today is nothing.
I go eat, hit a cigarette or hit a J. You know, if they've got beers, I'll go to the trap house and drink a beer.
A trap house, that's like a drug-dealing hub, right?
Uh-huh. And sometimes these youth are caught up in other illegal stuff as well. In fact, Cathy Lanier, D.C.'s Chief of Police, says 14 truancy officers sometimes find these students in the middle of committing a crime.
CHIEF OF POLICE CATHY LANIER
Our single biggest issue with truants right now is burglaries. During the day, when they're truant from school, they're out and engaging in criminal activity.
And what are all the parents doing about this?
Well, sometimes they don't know what's going on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE 4
You've got to be slick, that's it, and some parents are dumb. Some parents are just dumb. Some parents just believe whatever their kids say. I mean, we love them and all, but slow.
Sometimes parents are busy working more than one job. Sometimes it's grandparents raising grandchildren. Sometimes students will just say, call my parents, they don't care. A council member and a community member have suggested things like having police officers visit parents or cutting funding from schools if students don't attend.
So I'm assuming this can't be just a D.C. problem?
No, it isn't. In fact, Prince George's County tackled this very same issue a few years ago. Their truancy rate was 5 1/2 percent in 2007 and mind you, in Maryland, you're considered habitually truant if you miss 36 days, unlike D.C.'s 15. So Rosalind Johnson, a school board member there, led the effort to educate the community on the role it can play to make sure children go to school.
MS. ROSALIND JOHNSON
We had t-shirts and we had large posters and we would walk to the nearest shopping center. The children were chanting and walking and waving their signs and we had flyers. We would just hand out the flyers.
The flyers had the non-emergency number to the Prince George's police department.
Hundreds and hundreds of people actually put the phone number on speed dial and so we tried to make sure that there was really no place that someone could go.
This allowed the police to break up skipping parties where truant students got together. Also, the campaign emphasized that businesses shouldn't serve these students during the school day.
And did the campaign work?
Well, unfortunately, while Johnson says the campaign was very successful in the beginning, the numbers the county reports to the state shows over the past three years the truancy rate has actually been increasing there. It's gone from 5 1/2 percent to 6 1/2 percent this year. D.C. is also planning a media campaign to educate the community similar to the one in Prince George's County. But officials there actually say they're moving away from that to a more targeted campaign where they focus on individual schools and students.
Well, we look forward to hearing how all of that pans out. Kavitha Cardoza is WAMU's education reporter. Thanks so much for joining us Kavitha.
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