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Class Cutters Beware

Hartford Police Cracking Down On Students Who Skip School

November 14, 2006
By RACHEL GOTTLIEB, Courant Staff Writer

When Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts was a child growing up in Hartford, he recalled, students who were nervy enough to skip school hid all day or found themselves at risk of being picked up by a truant officer.

Now, there's little to fear, and absenteeism is a major problem in Hartford's public schools.

But Roberts is bringing the old days back.

Roberts, who became the city's police chief in July, has initiated a program to find children who should be in school and make sure they get to class. He has assigned two detectives - one in the North End and the other in the South End - to seek out children who are chronically absent and investigate the reasons for their truancy.

Patrol officers throughout the city are also being told to pick up such children and return them to school.

The goal, Roberts said, is to root out the reasons children are skipping school - and to get help for them and their families. Detectives may suspect involvement with gang activity, or they may learn about a bully at school. They may find that the child is working to support his family, that his parent works and doesn't realize that the child is skipping school, or that the parent is a substance abuser, Roberts said.

Depending on what they find, police may call the school or the state Department of Children and Families or work directly with the parents, he said. But Roberts said anyone encouraging chronic truants could find themselves in trouble.

"I am not going to arrest a child who is truant. I'm looking to hold irresponsible adults accountable," Roberts said. "Maybe I'll arrest a parent if they harbor a truant."

"A lot of kids involved in illegal activity are the same kids who are not going to school. These are the same kids who, when they are 18, won't be able to get a job because they don't have the tools. There are kids with over 100 absences. The same kids in five years are potential criminals. How do you let that happen?"

Low attendance is one of the biggest problems the district faces. The average daily attendance for the ninth grade in the city's three comprehensive high schools last year was 81 percent. If the district's historical pattern holds, half of all high school freshmen won't make it to graduation.

"It's very hard to work with kids who are not in school," said Leah Fichtner, senior director of student support services. "They can fail the year very quickly with unexcused absences. Some kids establish that pattern and then it's very hard to re-engage them in school."

The school district sent a letter to parents about the new police program Nov. 3 and enforcement began in earnest after that. So far, patrol officers have picked up about a dozen children and returned them to school, and have questioned half a dozen others who had excused absences.

As the year progresses, enforcement will become more routine and the detectives' role is expected to increase as the district begins referring the names of chronically truant students to police.

"We're getting officers accustomed to incorporating that in their repertoire of duties," said Capt. Achilles Rethis.

The program is being coordinated with district officials, who are directing each school to identify people to work with children when they are brought in by police to help develop a plan to help them succeed in school and to get extra help if needed, Fichtner said.

"They won't just send them back to class," said Terry D'Italia, spokesman for the school district.

The new program has the backing of the mayor, the school board and district leadership. Acting Superintendent of Schools Jacqueline Jacoby said she fully supports the initiative because "it's part of our overall effort to improve youngsters' attendance and achievement. If they aren't in school, they won't improve achievement."

But some parents have concerns about how the plan will play out on the streets. Sam Saylor, president of the PTO Presidents Council, said he and other council members worry that children will get into confrontations with police, run into traffic in an attempt to get away or lie about their names.

If the youngsters are not compliant, Saylor asked, "will the child be arrested? Our children don't have a good relationship with the police. The last thing a parent wants to hear is, `You have to come to the police department and pick up your child because he said or did the wrong thing to a police officer.' "

Saylor said he also wonders what officers will do if they find the children have been suspended or expelled from school. "If a kid is on suspension or expulsion, does he have to walk through town with a pass that says `I'm free?'" Saylor asked.

Part of the district's goal, Jacoby said, is to reduce out-of-school suspensions and direct kids to in-school suspensions. "It's all in an effort to create a culture of learning in our schools," she said.

Fichtner, the student support services director, shares Saylor's concerns about youngsters getting arrested. "I don't want to see any kid arrested. A kid's never going to go to school if he's arrested."

Still, she said, the need to get children to school is urgent.

"I think it's a good thing that this community is starting to pay attention to kids who are out on the streets when they should be in school. The days are over when a responsible adult can approach a child on the street and ask them why they aren't in school. We're teaching them not to speak to strangers."

That fear of a child misbehaving and getting himself into deeper trouble should not dictate policy, Roberts said. "So we let a kid be truant because we're afraid to arrest him?"

While parents continue to have questions about the new truancy policy, Saylor said, the program should be suspended. "We will send a letter to the mayor and ask for immediate cease and desist on pickups by police," Saylor said.

But Mayor Eddie A. Perez, chairman of the school board, said he supports Roberts' new plan.

"Sometimes parents don't know where their kids are," he said. "This is not about being punitive. This is about making sure kids are where they're supposed to be - in school learning. Adults have closed our eyes to the problem. Adults have to do the right thing. To have the police chief interested in truancy is a good day for Hartford."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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