Sweep nets several truants

By Ed Brock

Shivering slightly from the chill or nervousness the 13-year-old boy told police he had only missed four days of school.

A quick check by telephone told Clayton County sheriff's Sgt. Tina Daniel that the middle school student had actually missed 11 days so far this school year and 15 days last school year.

"Hopefully this will keep them on the right track," said Deputy Anthony Kessler as he looked on.

The 13-year-old and another student, a 15-year-old in an ROTC uniform, were among the first youths stopped by sheriff's deputies and Forest Park police officers on Thursday during this year's first truancy sweep.

"These are two today who are getting a little vision of the real world," Kessler said.

From 9 a.m. to just before noon the deputies and officers scoured the streets of Forest Park, taking into custody a total of 22 youths, eight of whom would be taken before Clayton County Juvenile Judge Tracy Graham. The 13-year-old was one of them and also one of three youths sent to the Regional Youth Detention Center in Lovejoy while their cases are considered.

Daniel said that two of the youths had been involved in an attempted burglary earlier in the day and are being connected to a series of other burglaries as well. About 83 percent of the crimes in the county that occur between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. are committed by juveniles, Daniel said, a trend that led the sheriff's department to begin the sweeps last school year.

"It's a bigger problem than some people think," Kessler said.

The sheriff's office ran eight of the sweeps last school year but this was the first time for a joint operation between that department and the Forest Park Police Department. There are several advantages to a joint operation, the officers said.

"It puts more officers on the street," said Forest Park police Lt. Robert Cotrell. "Another benefit is that they have the experience of doing this many times before. We have the experience of knowing where the problem areas are."

At the roll call for the participating officers held in the Forest Park police station Daniel told the officers to be careful.

"Just remember, these are children. Even though they're committing a crime they are kids," Daniel said. "These are kids, yes, but then we have a job to do."

The sweep netted at least 10 youths in the first hour, and officers responded to other possible crimes, like a reported case of attempted shoplifting that resulted in a criminal trespass warning against the suspect.

"He picked the wrong day to be doing that," Kessler said.

Kessler and the other officers were often surprised at how many days many of the youths had already missed so early in the school year. An ever-increasing population in the county could be one reason they can get away with it, Forest Park High School Principal Morris Davis Jr. said.

"More kids' parents are working and wake up early," Davis said. "There's really nobody there to get those kids up."

Clayton County has a population of 240,000 and 50,000 of those are students in the school system.

There are some 1,500 students at his school, Davis said, and they can't watch everybody.

"We're trying to find things we can tap into to motivate them to come to school," Davis said.

That includes giving extra credit for timely attendance.

Alan Potts, the father of 16- and 14-year-old daughters, was angry that his children had been stopped in the sweep even though they were released. The 16-year-old, who is married and no longer in school, and her husband were taking the younger girl to see their mother who had checked the 14-year-old out of school because the teen was sick.

"They just harassed them for no reason at all," Potts said.

But the 14-year-old had to go home, Daniel said, and nowhere else except a doctor's office if she was sick.

Georgia Compulsory Attendance law states that it is the duty of every parent, guardian, or other person taking care of a child between the ages of 7 and 16 to assure that child attends a public or private school or a home study program. Failure to comply with the law constitutes a misdemeanor punishable by a fine or jail time.

In the past parents received a letter notifying them of their child's five, 10, or 15 unexcused absences from school. Beginning in August, parents no longer are receiving three notices. Parents receive a letter after their child has had five unexcused absences.

The letter explains to the parent or guardian, among other things, that he or she could be charged with the crime of Contributing to the Deprivation of a Minor Child, a misdemeanor that could cost them a $1,000 fine or require serving up to 12 months in jail, if they fail to make their child attend school.

The second letter parents receive will be their last. It is sent out after a child has 10 unexcused absences. In the last letter, parents are invited to attend a truancy education workshop.

Daniel said the next sweep is scheduled to be in November.