Police enlisted to fight truancy
Albany -- Under new program, city cops will bring students to detention center run by school district official
By BRIAN NEARING, timesunion.com, September 11, 2004 LINK
To combat chronic truancy, city police will be sweeping Albany's streets for kids skipping school.
Starting Sept. 20, cops will be on the lookout for school-aged children out in public during the day, said Sheri Townsend, city commissioner of Youth and Workforce Services.
Anyone found without a legitimate written excuse for not being in class will be taken by police to a city-run detention center on Central Avenue, where a school district official will take custody of them, Townsend said.
From there, parents will be called to take their children to school. If parents cannot be located, the students will be escorted there by district officials. That same night, a police officer and a county probation officer will visit homes where parents had not responded to calls, Townsend said.
Albany is joining Brooklyn as the only municipalities in the state where police roam the streets to enforce truancy laws and then bring offenders to a municipal detention center. Mayor Jerry Jennings announced the program Friday.
"We're sending a message that school is the most important thing in students' lives," Jennings said during a City Hall news conference. "Nothing bothers me more than seeing kids who ought to be in school out on the street."
State education law requires children ages 6 to 16 to attend classes full time.
Townsend said officials will work with parents to get children to attend school. Extreme cases could be referred to the probation system or Family Court as a last resort, she said.
The program is being paid for by a $255,000 grant from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The funds will cover overtime for city police, three staff positions and a probation officer.
Jennings said Sal Villa, a retired Albany High School administrator who recently was interim principal at School 20 in North Albany, will help run the program.
"When I was hired by the district in 1969, I was the attendance teacher at Albany High," Villa said. "I've gone out into the streets to look for kids."
Interim Superintendent Eva Joseph welcomed the city's effort. She said truancy leaves some students mired in academic failure and more at risk of dropping out.
The district doesn't have the staff to search the streets for truants, she said. The district has two attendance teachers who keep track of attendance, but they no longer leave school grounds to look for truants. Instead, they call the homes of students who don't show up, Joseph said.
Last year, the mayor proposed a controversial daytime youth curfew that drew criticism from the local American Civil Liberties Union chapter. Jennings' idea came after a proposed nighttime curfew was backed by Common Councilwoman Sarah Curry-Cobb, who represents the 4th Ward in Arbor Hill.
Truants sometimes can be easy to find during the day. On Friday afternoon, Townsend found a 14-year-old middle school girl playing hooky outside her 175 Central Ave. office, which will become the detention center.
"She said she didn't go to school because her grandmother didn't have a bus pass for her," the commissioner said.
At Albany High School, as students were leaving at the end of the day, the idea of police patrols targeting truants got mixed reviews.
"I think it will accomplish a lot," said Lauren Oliver, an 11th-grader. "More people will come to school and be on time."
Her 10th-grade friend, Xzavier Oritz said, "A lot of people just blow off school."
Another sophomore, Edward Jones, said using police to force students to go to school "is messed up. They should use something like after-school detention. Police? It's a little over the top."
On an average day, about 7 percent of the district's 9,800 students -- or about 690 children -- are absent, said district spokeswoman Tara Mitchell. However, that figure includes truants and students with illnesses or other excused absences.
Albany's attendance rate last year was the lowest among the 13 school districts in the county, according to figures from the state Education Department.
In Brooklyn, school officials said truancy dropped when they started a similar program with police in 2000. In the first year, police got more than 100,000 truants off city streets. That number dropped to about 74,000 students in the 2001-02 year and fell again to about 68,000 in 2002-03.
School districts are under pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act to meet minimum attendance levels, said David Ernst, a spokesman for the New York State School Board Association.
"School district truant officers have pretty much been a thing of the past," he said. "Most districts usually turn to the parents, who sometimes are no more able to compel the student to do something than the district is."
Needing police to enforce truancy laws may just be a sign of changing times, he said. "The days are gone when just an adult speaking sternly to a student who was out of school would be sufficient. The perceived moral authority of a truant officer is not as effective as it used to be."
All Times Union materials copyright 1996-2004, Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation, Albany, N.Y.