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Tracking down truants

About 10:30 a.m. on a school day, three teenage boys in black hats, hooded sweatshirts and puffy coats are standing on a corner known for drug-dealing. Down the block, an eviction is under way, with men throwing mattresses out an upstairs window.

The blue van pulls up to one of the few rowhouses on this West Baltimore street that isn't boarded up. Charles Washington, 69, slides out of the back seat, knocks on the door and introduces himself: a truancy officer from the city public schools.

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He is looking for a 12-year-old girl who has missed 31 days of classes at William H. Lemmel Middle, but she doesn't live there anymore. The man at the door says his family took in the girl as an abandoned infant, but last summer her mother came back for her. Now, he believes she's "running wild."

"They love her like it was their own child," Washington says as he reports back to the van's driver, fellow truancy officer Walter Barnes III, 55. "They want the child back."

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The men work for the Baltimore Truancy Assessment Center, a division of the city school police department and the only program of its kind in Maryland. The center works to track down chronic truants in a school system where an estimated 4,500 students - more than 5 percent of the total enrolled - are absent each day without a valid excuse.

Truancy, a problem often seen as the precursor to crime and other social ills, has gained attention in recent weeks as the state's new first lady, Baltimore District Judge Catherine Curran O'Malley, made it her signature cause. She has not proposed any specific action, but she says she wants to draw attention to the issue.

The attention couldn't come at a better time for the truancy center, which costs $1.1 million a year to operate and is trying to secure funding for a second location. City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., one of the center's founders, plans to introduce a resolution later this month asking for Mayor Sheila Dixon's support.

Every weekday, Washington and Barnes ride through the city's most economically depressed and drug-infested neighborhoods trying to locate chronic truants, students between the ages of 5 and 15 who've had 20 or more unexcused absences. After students turn 16, they are free to drop out of school.

Both retired city police officers, they seek to provide whatever help is needed to get truant kids back in school. They link families with the center's in-house service providers, including counselors from the state departments of social and juvenile services and the city housing department. They also inform parents that they can face jail time for their children's prolonged absences.

The truancy center is made possible by a city curfew law prohibiting students from being on the streets between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. on school days. Officials from other school systems have visited, expressing interest in starting something similar.

Joe Sacco, the center's executive director, says unexcused absences have dropped since his program started in 2003, when the daily figure was between 6,000 and 7,000. But no other Maryland system except Prince George's County has a problem comparable to the city's.

Nationally, Sacco says, about 3.2 million students are absent from school each day. Communities use a variety of strategies to combat truancy, from denying driver's licenses for bad attendance to offering cars for good attendance. In Norwalk, Conn., families can be evicted from public housing if their children are truant.

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Two Baltimore initiatives, the truancy center and a truancy court run by the University of Baltimore, focus on the problems leading to chronic absenteeism.

With a staff of 18, the center operates out of a former day care and administrative building for Sojourner-Douglass College in East Baltimore. When it first opened, kids swept off the street during the school day were transported there for a service assessment while they waited for their parents to pick them up.

But the need was overwhelming and the center was crowded, with kids waiting for hours and those from rival gangs sometimes trying to fight each other. So officials tried a new approach this year.

Now, city police officers take the kids they round up on the street - 2,604 between October and December - back to school. They forward the students' names to the truancy center, which pulls their attendance records. Then Sacco's eight truancy officers make house calls for the worst cases.

They find students who are homeless, students who are home baby-sitting younger siblings, students who are on the corners selling drugs, sometimes under orders from a parent.

Once, they found a 12-year-old girl in a bathrobe, prostituting herself to get by. Another time, they found a filthy 7-year-old boy starving and abandoned by his mother.

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Barnes, who also served as a state trooper, has a quiet, gentle demeanor. He works three jobs: a truancy officer by day, a Johns Hopkins campus guard by night, and a Pentecostal church pastor on Sundays.

Washington, a witty and talkative Air Force veteran who writes novels and poetry, tries to keep Barnes laughing amid the despair they witness. But he struggles to contain his outrage.

Heading north to the Park Heights neighborhood, they pull up to another set of rowhouses. Made of brick and stone, these are all occupied, with porches and grass in front. Washington walks through a chain-link gate, past swan-shaped plant holders and a wilting poinsettia.

Inside, he finds a man sitting in a cramped living room, watching the evangelist Benny Hinn preach on television.

His name is Ernest Young, grandfather of a Northwestern High freshman who has missed 23 days. He and his wife have been caring for the boy and his twin sister since at least 2003, when their daughter - the children's mother - went to prison. She was released last fall, but she wouldn't take them back.

Young says he has lost control of the household. The twins come and go as they please. He doesn't know if they are in school.

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"I don't really know what to tell you," Young tells Washington. "I'm too old to be fooling with hard-headed kids."

Washington asks Young several questions, trying to determine who's legally responsible for the twins. He explains that the responsible person can face fines and up to 30 days in jail.

He gives Young the name of a social worker who will contact him about his grandson.

"I'll see if we can help you with this," he says.

"I hope you can help me and get him out of here," Young replies.

At the next house, a wooden canopy over the doorway is collapsing. It's the home of a Garrison Middle sixth-grader, recorded absent 31 times. The boy's mother tells Washington he's probably on the corner selling drugs.

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"He ain't in school - he won't go to school," Washington reports back to Barnes in the van. He says he feels grateful that his three kids are grown.

"You know what people don't understand?" Washington asks. "If jail is a step up from where you live, how can it be a deterrent? Jail is a step up for these people. You're there with your homies, three meals a day."

He sighs.

"It's depressing. That's all I can say."

A week later, Washington and Barnes are back in Park Heights. Washington is talking about how a lot of parents have been surprised lately to learn that their kids aren't in school, how administrators aren't always sending home letters and calling as they're supposed to.

When a child has three unexcused absences, someone from the school is supposed to send a letter or call home. At five absences, there's supposed to be a parent conference. After 10, legal action can be taken.

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But that follow-through varies by school. The city schools' central attendance office was dismantled during a budget crisis in 2003, a few months after the truancy center opened. The office reopened this school year with a director but no employees.

The director, Tina Spears, says plans are in the works for her to hire three staff members, plus a truancy and attendance monitor at all city middle schools, which have the highest truancy rates.

The school system has an incentive to address the issue: the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which monitors attendance, in addition to test scores. Schools could face sanctions for failure to meet standards.

For Washington and Barnes, the first case of the new day is a 13-year-old boy, address unknown. He has missed 47 days of school, but the file doesn't say where. Washington knocks on one door, but the man who answers says it's the wrong house.

A mile away, Washington tries again, at a rowhouse with some windows boarded, others covered in plastic. A mattress, a box spring and garbage fill the porch, and dozens of bikes are piled on the ground. "Looks like a lot of stolen bikes to me," Washington says.

The woman who answers first says she doesn't know the boy. Moments later, she changes the story, saying she's his aunt and can get a letter to him. She says he used to live there, but moved. Washington doesn't buy it.

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"I think it is the mother, so she got the riot act read to her," he tells Barnes as he gets back in the van, stepping over a muddy brown boot in the middle of the street. "She don't care. Human nature's not a pretty thing."

The van passes through the streets where Washington used to patrol as a city police officer. He marvels at the number of people outside doing nothing in the middle of the day.

No one answers at the next house, which has visible cracks between the bricks and cages over the windows. It stands next to an alley strewn with soda cans, empty bags of chips, plastic bags and burger wrappers. Two pit bulls roam amid the trash and growl.

"Can you imagine people living like this?" Barnes asks.

"Tell me that jail is a deterrent to that, somebody," Washington says. "I'd put in an application to go to jail if I lived here. The whole thing should be condemned."

"The whole block," Barnes replies.

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They visit the home of a Garrison Middle seventh-grader who has missed 26 days. "Mother and father live there and they can't do nothing with him," Washington says. "What do you do when both the parents can't do nothing with a 13-year-old? Jesus, Lord."

Another house is filled with roaches. At the last stop of the day, the girl has been shut out of school because she's not up to date on her immunizations.

"You can see what we went through today," Washington says on the ride back to the truancy center. "We've got some real problems."

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com


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