Threat of prosecution not working

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Three years ago, CPS began a crackdown on parents of chronically truant kids, threatening up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine. But the get-tough approach has not worked.

The system’s chronic truancy rate has remained between 3 and 4 percent, or about 16,000 students in 2004-05, according to preliminary data. Students are considered chronically truant when they rack up more than 18 unexcused absences in a school year.

The sheer numbers overwhelm school and district resources and deter prosecution. “We’re catching a few,” says Janette Wilson, CPS director of attendance and truancy intervention. “But it’s like putting a finger in the dike.”

Truancy cases are first heard at the School Board and can result in parents being referred to counseling, parenting classes or community service. When parents do not comply, their cases can be forwarded to the state’s attorney for prosecution.

Hearings sometimes are delayed by more than six months, according to high school staff, and even when they are held, teenage truants rarely reform.

Of 1,345 hearings conducted since 2002, only 23 cases have been sent to the state’s attorney, according to CPS. Wilson says the state’s attorney’s office discouraged CPS from sending more, arguing that they would be a burden.

Only one of the 23 referrals resulted in a prosecution: The mother of a 13-year old who missed nearly 200 days of school in two years was put on probation for 30 days. “She still doesn’t send her child to school,” Wilson adds.

Students can be sent to juvenile court if authorities decide they are to blame, but Wilson says that none have been prosecuted so far.

The obstacles to reversing chronic truancy are daunting. Pregnancy, drug abuse, family dysfunction, fear of gang violence, homelessness and asthma are just some of the reasons high school students are truant, school staff say. And some teenagers care for younger siblings, sick relatives or their own children.

One girl at Robeson High stayed home because she was the only family member left to care for her dying father, says attendance coordinator Rochelle Woods. Home tutoring is available only to sick students, not students who must care for sick relatives, she explains. The girl has since dropped out. “We couldn’t figure out what to do.”

As part of its 2003 truancy initiative, the School Board paired 80 elementary schools and 20 high schools with nine social service agencies.

Woods says those services are helpful but insufficient for the number of kids who need help. Robeson’s partner agency, the YMCA, was able to serve only 15 of the school’s 50 chronic truants last year, she says.

Wilson thinks it’s going to be tough to reduce chronic truancy without more intensive social services and stronger backing in the courts. “We have no real sanctions that get the attention of parents.”