Frustrated by rampant truancy in a city where as many as 15,000 youngsters play hooky any given day, Baltimore is turning to the Police Department to get kids off the streets and back in classrooms.
Starting Monday, in each of the nine police districts, an officer in a patrol car will devote four hours solely to searching for truants and returning them to school, city officials announced yesterday.
Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier, who began a similar effort more than a decade ago as police chief of San Jose, Calif., had a message yesterday for all those Baltimore kids who would head for malls or the 7-Eleven or a city park instead of school. "You need to be in school, and if you're not, we're going to find you and put you in school," the commissioner said.
He predicted that that the effort would reduce truancy almost immediately. "The places where kids hang out they won't hang out because they know that's where we're going to be," he said. "And we're going to be looking for them, and they realize if we see them on the street, we're going to take them right back to school."
Mr. Frazier said the effort also is designed to reduce daytime crime -- particularly auto thefts and burglaries -- which has long been linked to truancy. As much as 80 percent of such crime has been linked to juveniles, many of them truants.
As part of the new crackdown on truancy, expected to cost about $140,000 the first year, officers will be paid overtime to work 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each school day. They will not arrest 'D students but question youngsters who appear to be age 16 or under and transport them to school if they're truant, Mr. Frazier said.
Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who touted the "real sense of partnership" between the Police Department and the school system, said the city is considering creating a truancy center where youths could be transported and spend the day reading (( or completing homework assignments.
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has repeatedly fretted about high truancy rates, welcomed the police effort. "I think the youngsters will get the message that they need to come to school," he said. "This kind of gives a new meaning to the term truant officer."
It also provides a desperately needed assist in the fight against truancy to the school district.
Consider that just three social workers, assisted by four case managers, struggle to handle 2,000 chronic truants a year, who typically have missed anywhere from 35 days to more than a full school year.
When informal hearings at the school system or home visits fail to stop a child's truancy, the hard-core cases -- 600 of them last school year alone -- end up in District or Juvenile Court, said Barbara Brody, a school system social worker.
Parents can be fined $50 for each day their children miss school, or they can be sentenced to 10 days in jail. But many are on welfare, and few ever spend a day in jail or pay anything beyond $50 court costs.
Ms. Brody, who visits homes and attends truancy court cases regularly, figures she's heard just about every conceivable reason why a child missed school.
Some children have no shoes, their parents explain; some are fearful of getting shot or stabbed. Others can't get cool clothes until the welfare checks come in. Some are homeless or the children of transients or drug addicts who answer the door in a daze at noon.
Some parents tell school workers to go away and leave them and their children alone -- in none-too-polite terms.
Yesterday, at Harlem Park Middle School, Roseanne Veiga, another social worker, asked a parent about her child's absence on the first day.
"What do you mean, why isn't my child in school?" the parent snapped. "She's not ready, that's why."
It's all too typical a response, Ms. Veiga said -- "even for some parents of kids who are 9 and 10 and never attended school for a day in a year."
Numerous high-profile efforts launched a few years ago to combat truancy have quietly disappeared, among them parents hired to become "attendance assistants" and school-based social workers.
Whether it comes from police or parents or persistent principals or judges, social workers say, help will be accepted from wherever they can get it.
Because of the move toward school-based management, say school system officials, individual schools -- not the district as a whole -- will now decide how best to improve attendance and fight truancy.
Other large-city districts have been turning to police to help combat truancy.
In one of the toughest efforts, Philadelphia decided this year to allow police to pick up, search and handcuff truants before taking them to truancy centers.