By Ed Brock
For a child, spending four years out of school may seem like a dream come true.
But a 15-year-old boy picked up by Clayton County sheriff's deputies and police in a truancy sweep earlier this month would have faced a nightmare in adulthood if he hadn't been discovered.
"We want every student to be a productive member of society and without an education that's hard to do," said Clayton County Sheriff's Sgt. Tina Daniel.
The boy's parents, 40-year-old Dorothy and 45-year-old Floyd Henderson of the Jonesboro area were charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor in connection with the situation that started when the Hendersons and their two sons moved to Clayton County from Atlanta.
The youngest son, who was arrested for truancy on April 16 while walking on Ga. Highway 138 near Jonesboro High School with his 18-year-old brother, was in the 6th grade when they came here. It was the 1999-2000 school year, Daniel said.
Floyd Henderson told authorities that he thought his wife was taking care of registering the children in a school, while Dorothy Henderson said she was worn down by the system.
"She wanted to get him into school but with his disciplinary record at the other schools she got the impression that nobody was interested in dealing with him," Daniel said.
There was no apparent maliciousness in the parents' failure to enroll the 15-year-old in school and, apparently, they did not know they were violating the law by not doing so, Daniel said.
In fact, Daniel said that both the 15-year-old and the Hendersons were very honest and cooperative with police about the situation.
So for nearly four years the youth hung out on the streets, looking for odd jobs but managing to stay out of trouble with the law in both Fulton and Clayton counties.
"That just shows there's some goodness in that child," Daniel said. "His main concern was he really wanted to get a job to help the family."
And as far as Daniel could determine, once the teen left the Atlanta public school system there was no statewide mechanism for tracking his enrollment into another system. That part may soon change, Georgia Department of Education Administration Specialist Amy McMurtrey said.
"We will be doing it as soon as our student record database is up," McMurtrey said.
While it is the responsibility of the local system to assure attendance, McMurtrey said, when the database is online state DOE officials will probably notify local administrators about discrepancies such as when a student leaves one system and does not reappear as enrolled in another the next year.
As it stands now the system from which a student has withdrawn keeps the records until they are requested by the next system in which the student enrolls, acting Deputy Superintendent of Clayton County Schools Bill Horton said. Still, the Henderson teen is probably not the only youth in the metro Atlanta area to fall through the cracks, Horton said.
Most often the school system has to find these kind of truants through sweeps such as the one in which the Henderson teen was caught and when neighbors call the school system to inform them of a child they think should be in school.
"We have a very aggressive attendance program now working with the juvenile court," Horton said.
Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Graham has been with the court for seven and a half years and handles most of the truancy cases brought before the court.
"I've never seen it before but they fly under the radar screen," Graham said. "There could be hundreds of kids out there we don't know about. It's just so sad, they've doomed him to failure."
The Henderson teen's case was adjudicated Friday and he was returned to the custody of his parents with the strict stipulation that he go to school, Daniel said. He has been placed in a high school to make the transition smoother, but the task of educating him will not be easy, Horton said.
"As much as he missed, I don't think we'll be able to catch him up in a year," Horton said. "Basically he has missed his entire middle school experience."
An Individual Education Plan will have to be drawn for the teen that will be more detailed and extensive than the usual IEP. The most difficult part will be to try to keep him in school after he turns 16, the age when he can drop out of school with his parents' consent.
That law, a throwback to the country's early years as an agrarian culture in which the teens would be needed on the family farm, should be rewritten, Horton said. Dropouts should be required to enter a program in which they will learn a saleable trade so they will not become a burden on society.
"When a child leaves school at 16 they aren't going to get a very good job," Horton said.
But the Hendersons, who are out on bail with a case still pending in Clayton County State Court and who could not be reached for comment, were actually grateful for the authorities' intervention.
"After Friday's hearing (Dorothy Henderson) came up and thanked me," Daniel said. "Who would have thought in this day and age that this would happen?"