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Truancy Officers Work to Combat Absenteeism

Tuesday, May 20, 2014 at 6:30 AM

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Truancy officer Larry Keating/Photo Courtesy of Amy Hansen.

Long before students drop out of school they give clues that they are in trouble. Habitually failing to show up for class is one of the most obvious. It’s one of the surest predictors a student is headed for academic failure. Few are closer to the problem than truancy officers. StateImpact Ohio reporter Amy Hansen provides this glimpse of how truancy looks from their perspective.

Every morning Larry Keating parks himself near the entrance to Keifer Academy in Springfield, Ohio – a city of about 60-thousand west of Columbus.  His pencil hits the paper with a check mark if a student is on time.  If they’re late, he makes a mark in another column and hands them a tardy slip.

Of the five schools Keating monitors, this high school for “at risk” students has a higher-than-average attendance rating.  About 12 percent of the student body is typically absent, compared to Ohio’s overall absentee rate of 5 percent, according to the most recent figures from the state department of education.

Keating tells me he spends most of his time looking for truant students--and sometimes, he said, it wears him down. 

“It’s like running in mud,” he said. “You put forth a lot of effort, but you get nowhere.”

School attendance in Ohio, as in most states, is compulsory.  Unexcused absences are tolerated but only up to a point.  States vary on their definition of habitual truancy – the point where being absent can lead to criminal charges.  In Ohio, the threshold is five consecutive days of unexcused absences, seven days in a month or twelve days in a year.  Keating, who’s been working as a truant officer for 18 years, has crafted a simpler definition.

“If I can’t find ‘em, they’re truant,” he said.

There are many reasons kids don’t show up for class.  Sometimes it’s as simple as “playing hooky.” Keating said he’s still amazed at how clever students can be about that.  He remembers one who avoided him by hanging out at a local hospital.

“He says you go in, there’s waiting rooms, you can watch TV, there’s a cafeteria, nobody bothers you, someone comes in you say you’re waiting for your family member...I never would have thought of the hospital.”
Family circumstances are often at the root of chronic truancy.  For example, a parent may rely on an older child frequently to babysit younger siblings.  One of Keating’s colleagues, Terry Stephens, said he often encounters parents who defend their kid’s cutting class.

“In this day and time, we have a lot of kids raising kids, and when they’re in high school, the kid may be 15, but the parent might be 28, 29,” he said. “And most parents want their kids to be their friend.  That’s a lot of the trouble that we have.”

Those who violate the state’s truancy laws can face a laundry list of penalties, including community service or probation for students and a fine of up to $1,000 or jail time for adults.  But enforcement varies widely.  For several years, Cleveland schools chose not to file any court cases for truancy, specifically.  There, as in most places, school officials would rather find non-punitive approaches.

In Clark County – where Stephens and Keating work – a local juvenile court hears cases weekly.  But cases can get backed up for months.  Keating has spent many hours there, and he’s not sure it does much good.

“Outside of the judge slapping them with probation, nothing’s changed,” he said.

In fact, few believe the threat of court action alone will keep kids in school.  National research shows a more comprehensive effort is needed – one that incorporate better tracking of absences, family services, and even incentives. In the District of Columbia, for example, each day a child shows up for school they get a chance to win a prize in a school raffle. 

In Springfield, Truant Officer Terry Stephens believes his job is basically about one thing. 

“I wanna help you,” Stephens said."If I can help you get to school, then that’s what I want to do.”

Just knowing someone is looking for them, he says, sends a signal that someone cares.

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