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Taking Truants Off The Street

Police Are Fighting City Schools' Truancy Rate As A Way To Fight The City's Crime Rate

July 26, 2007
By NIRAJ CHOKSHI, Courant Staff Writer

It's almost 11:30 a.m. on a June weekday, a little more than a week before school ends.

Lt. Mark Tedeschi, the head of the Hartford Police Department's juvenile investigative division, is standing near Park and Chadwick streets as one of his detectives discusses the division's efforts to curb truancy.

As the detective speaks, a teenager walks by behind Tedeschi, who whips around to talk to the boy.

"Hey, young man, how are you? How's school today?" he asks.

It's cold and cloudy, and there are still puddles from the early morning rain - not ideal weather for skipping school. The boy is wearing black Air Jordans and a Chicago Bulls jersey with 23 on the front and 22 on the back. He sees where this is going and makes a hasty attempt to avoid the ensuing conversation.

"I'm about to go to school right now," he says.

The detective, Dixon Vega, jumps in.

"You're about to? Well, guess what? That's why we're out here today - making sure that kids go to school. What school do you go to?" he says.

After a few minutes of questioning, the boy asks, "Damn, y'all gotta do all this?"

Yes, Hartford police say, they do.

And data released this week showed a police pilot program during the second half of the last school year reduced unexcused absences by more than 40 percent among 73 habitual truants whose attendance was monitored for the program.

The second phase of the program continued during summer school and the third phase begins in September for the full 2007-08 school year.

Troubled by studies linking truancy to crime and by the staggering absentee rate in city schools, Police Chief Daryl K. Roberts made reducing truancy one of his top priorities in the fall of 2006.

Moreover, truancy contributes to the city's low scores on standardized tests and to its high dropout rate, school officials say.

On any given day, during the 2006-07 school year, a little more than 7 percent of Hartford students - 1,600 out of 22,500 - were absent. The problem peaked among ninth-graders:, nearly 14 percent are absent on any day.

Four out of five students in the program, which began in mid-February, showed an improvement in attendance. The students' total unexcused absences fell from 2,059 before police intervention to 1,196 days during intervention, a 42 percent drop. The periods compared were equal in number of school days.

The students, selected from two elementary, two middle and two high schools, were tracked because they were identified as "habitual truants," having racked up 20 or more unexcused absences during the previous school year.

Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez said the statistics represent "a great start" to the program.

Only data collected during the first phase of the program - Feb. 13 to June 22 - were analyzed.

Perez said the truancy effort is an example of how the city is becoming smarter about how it addresses crime.

Although the report cites studies linking decreases in crime to truancy reduction in other cities, it did not provide statistics relating the two in Hartford. That was because there was no easy way to measure crime among the small group of students, Tedeschi said.

However, police say the link is clear.

While crime drove the department's truancy efforts, some say it shouldn't be the only factor behind a drive to reduce truancy.

Sometimes truancy sheds light on other serious issues facing children, said Duckworth Grange, a community relations liaison in the Hartford-area office of the Department of Children and Families.

"Truancy is not just ... a criminal issue. There are a number of issues that impact truancy," he said. "A child could be homeless. Poverty is an issue. Bullying is an issue. Neglect and abuse issues in the home could be a reason why the kid isn't going to school. You need to bring all the systems together to have a true collaborative approach."

Police worked closely with school support services staff as they set up the truancy program, said Terry D'Italia, the school district's spokesman.

"They worked ... on how they would re-engage students," he said.

"Once [the police] do bring them back to their school, there are designated people at the school to receive them and work with them and their parents on a re-entry program."

The department launched the program with the assistance of a $150,000 grant from the St. Paul Travelers Connecticut Foundation. That money helped fund various aspects of the program, including prizes for students who showed improved attendance.

Part of the police truancy effort has included truancy sweeps, days set aside for some officers to patrol the streets in search of truants. Police rounded up a total of 45 truant students over five sweeps during the 2006-07 school year. Another 31 were stopped but had valid excuses.

On that damp June morning, Tedeschi was with his officers on the department's last sweep of the school year. As they gear up for the 2007-08 school year, police plan to conduct more, Tedeschi said.

On the morning of a sweep, police visit locations where truant students are known to hang out and then continue to patrol the streets in search of school-aged children. One detective is assigned to lead officers in the North End while another manages the South End.

When officers find truant students they question them, as they did the boy in the Bulls jersey. After Det. Vega finished with him, another officer arrived to take the boy to the station. Vega soon got in his tan, unmarked Crown Victoria to meet them there.

At the police department, the boy, like all truants, is photographed and a record is created for internal use. A detective talks to him to identify why he was skipping, if he needs help or can be referred to a social service organization. He is then returned to school. A week later the detectives follow up on him.

Finding truant students is all about patrolling the streets, Vega says. There's no guaranteed way to find students, sometimes it's all about last-minute luck on patrol.

"While we were on the street ... we saw three kids," he said that morning. "They were just chitchatting on the sidewalk, all three of them, eating wafers. All three were on the list [of absent students] and, so happens, we hit the jackpot."

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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