Jaffe: To quell D.C. truancy: It's the parents, stupid

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe

The triangle park at the intersection of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X Avenues in Congress Heights is a cool place to hang out. At 1 p.m. on any given day you can find gaggles of high school students there. It might be the shank of the school day, and these teenagers should be soaking up lessons on Algebra or the Periodic Table or the Emancipation Proclamation. But they are on the loose, free of classroom constraints. Count them among the hordes of truants roaming D.C.'s streets, headed for a life of failure rather than one of learning and success.

Upwards of 40 percent of the students at nearby Ballou and Anacostia High Schools missed at least a month of class last year, according to D.C. public schools. These are the semistudents who are destined for dependency at best, jail at worst.

"We are in a crisis situation," Chancellor Kaya Henderson told the city council earlier this month.

Not so. A crisis refers to something sudden or unusual. Truancy in the District is endemic, historic, business as usual.

"If there is a true desire to conquer it," Superior Court Chief Judge Lee Satterfield wrote last week, "let's not act as though it just appeared."

Satterfield advocates the city recommit to a Truancy Task Force that brings judges and politicians to schools to meet with students and parents. Swell. I advocate pain for parents.

In 1995, the Washington State Legislature passed the "Becca Bill." It was named after a high school student who posed as a parent and called school to excuse herself from class. She would die as a result of her activities out of school. Her parents helped pass a law to make sure another child didn't suffer the same fate.

The Becca Bill requires that schools inform parents of unexcused absences, that parents show up at school to discuss truancy, that schools can take legal action after five absences in one month. The schools must file charges after seven unexcused absences in a month or 10 a school year. It provides for jail time for the student, community service or fines for parents.

A 2002 study by the Washington State Policy Institute concluded the Becca Bill was "helping to keep youth in high school."

Why not make D.C. parents or guardians pay if their kids skip school? A West Virginia legislator proposed that parents of truants get a warning after five absences and lose their driver's license after 10. Sounds good to me.

There is a truancy law on city books, but it is weak and rarely enforced. The D.C. Compulsory School Attendance Law says neglect charges "may be filed" against parents who "may be" jailed, and students "may be" picked up by police and referred to courts.

A simple change of verbs in the bill from "may be" to "shall be" would put teeth in D.C. truancy laws, force parents to act and put kids back in class.

The park at MLK and Malcolm X Avenues might be empty of kids at midday, but the men for whom the streets were named would be honored.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonian.com.

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Harry Jaffe

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The Washington Examiner