D.C. Councilman David Catania, the relatively new chairman of the education committee, is willing to modify parts of his proposed legislation on truancy.
The original draft of the bill called for mandatory prosecution of parents whose students were absent-without-an-excuse 20 times per academic year. The administration of D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray opposed the legislation.
Catania (I -- at-large), on Saturday, told more than 60 parents at a forum on truancy at Ann Beers Elementary School: he doesn't want to put parents in jail and is willing to modify the bill.
But Catania defended other parts of the legislation which steer parents of chronically truant students into parenting classes. "We have a lot of 14, 15, 16, and 17-year olds who are not in school and we don't know why," Catania told the forum. "They just fall off the radar screen. And we need some part -- somebody in this government -- reaching after these families, these individuals, and finding out what the situation is [and] bringing them back."
There has always been a certain amount of truancy among D.C. public school students. But, a generation ago, truancy was squelched by both families and by the school system, according to the Rev. Anthony Motley, a Ward 8 resident, who drew laughter from the audience when he told the forum how his few attempts at playing hooky were squelched. "The first time we went to the Botanical Gardens rather than go to school," explained Rev. Motley. "And, when I got home, the truant officer was sitting in my living room." Motley said he tried playing hooky from D.C. Public Schools on one other occasion. That time, his family minister was sitting in the classroom the next morning, waiting to speak with him.
Nowadays, truancy among D.C. public school students is chronic, especially in poorer neighborhoods. At Anacostia High School, students who had at least 21 days of unexcused absences (during a recent school year) amounted to 45% of the student body.
Those who are chronically truant tend to not graduate, and many of them wind up in the criminal justice system. Superior Court Judge Zoe Bush told the forum it's a complicated social problem: "Because, when you go through the social study (of the person who standing before you to be sentenced as an adult), you'll see educational failure. You'll see parents who weren't old enough to start a family, who weren't prepared to raise children. And who would, pretty much out of frustration, [allow the children to] raise themselves."
Current city law actually already permits the jailing of parents of chronically truant children, although that drastic step almost never happens. Under the Catania truancy bill, if a parent affirms in writing that they cannot control their teenager, prosecution melts away, but a city social worker will likely begin intervening in the case.
The D.C. Council is scheduled to hold a hearing on truancy on February 28th.
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