It's difficult to turn down an invitation to Juvenile Court to talk about your child's school attendance -- especially when a Baltimore police officer delivers it to your home.
That strategy is at the heart of a new anti-truancy program launched this month by the Baltimore school system in cooperation with the courts, state and city agencies and local law enforcement.
Plagued by up to 20,000 chronic truants, city officials have begun an aggressive campaign aimed at turning around some 400 youngsters with serious attendance problems.
The centerpiece is a special series of four District and Juvenile Court hearings this month and next intended to hammer home the message that parents must send their children to school, or face criminal sanctions.
The first of those hearings took place Oct. 8 in Juvenile Court, drawing a standing-room-only crowd of more than 150 parents and their children.
"The presence of the police knocking on the door and delivering a letter from the court has had an effect," said Judge David B. Mitchell of the Family Court, at a City Hall news conference yesterday announcing the program. "They come."
City officials say they hope the hearings will make a deep impression on parents who often ignore the school system's less-dramatic letters and phone calls.
"This program will work because it addresses the problem of truancy before it gets out of control," said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, at a City Hall press conference yesterday announcing the program.
By focusing on elementary and middle school students, he said, the program will help "students that we are most likely able to save from eventually dropping out."
State and local statistics bear out the need for dramatic school attendance measures.
Of the nation's 20 largest cities, Baltimore has the highest percentage of 16- to 19-year-old residents who have not completed high school and are not enrolled in school -- 22.8 percent according to the 1990 national census.
Meanwhile, an estimated 18,000 to 20,000 Baltimore students fit the state's definition of "chronic truants," missing 36 days of school or more, according to Dr. Stuart Tabb, school attendance chief.
And in the 1990-1991 school year, nearly 40,000 students missed more than a month of school, according to figures reported to the state Department of Education.
State law requires parents to send children to school through age 16, or face penalties of up to 10 days in jail or fines of up to $50 for each day of unlawful absence.
But the city, strapped for funds, has no truant officers, and has taken only a few hundred parents to court for truancy violations in the past several years, a school department spokeswoman said.
"We as a court system . . . cannot particularly deal with every school and every child," admitted Judge Mitchell.
Instead, he and Dr. Tabb came up with a program working with two middle schools and 10 elementary schools. Those schools identified about 400 students who last year were absent up to 40 percent of the time.
The program works like this:
City police deliver a letter to the child's home, "requesting" that the parent or guardian show up at a special court hearing to discuss the child's attendance problem.
Those hearings include officials from the school system, the city state's attorney's office, and housing and social services.
In part, the hearings are intended to help parents work out problems that may stand in the way of regular school attendance.
But parents also are put on notice that their children's attendance will be closely watched. If it fails to improve, the parents could end up back in court, with the Circuit and District courts both pledging extra attention to truancy cases.
"It's not something that's new," Judge Mitchell said of compulsory school attendance laws.
"This time, we're putting teeth into it and enforcing it."
City officials were pleased by the response to the first special court hearing, saying that about 70 of the 90 families who received the voluntary hearing notices showed up.
"Just letting them know that the whole court system, the police commissioner cares about them. . . . I think that's a real important signal," said Mr. Schmoke.