Deputies sweep streets for truants

By Greg Gelpi

The school bells rang and some children hit the books, but others chose to hit the streets. Breakfast biscuits and a visit to her probation officer, juveniles offered a variety of reasons why they were skipping school.

The Clayton County Sheriff's Office conducted a truancy sweep in and around North Clayton High School, part of the county's continuing efforts to reduce truancy and crime.

"We're enforcing the truancy law, which is being broken, but we're also suppressing crime," Deputy Anthony Kessler, the sheriff's office crime prevention coordinator, said. He added that there's no way to tell how many crimes are prevented by truancy sweeps.

Almost as soon as the final bell rang for students to be in class, deputies from the narcotics, warrants, administrative and fugitives divisions blanketed the area and immediately found students walking off school grounds.

Sheriff's deputies caught 34 juveniles in about three hours, including one juvenile who already had 61 school absences and one student who was only in the sixth grade.

The sweep also netted two drug offenses and two outstanding warrants.

"These are just the numbers we were able to get," Kessler said.

One juvenile fled from deputies and hopped over a fence into a residential backyard, only to be "chewed up" by a dog. The juvenile was caught with cocaine in his possession.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracy Graham who heard the truancy cases said truancy sweeps are "always effective."

"Some of the parents weren't aware," Graham said. "This was an eye-opener for them."

She directed five juveniles to attend school and do homework under a court order. The other juveniles were immediately returned to school without being brought to juvenile court.

Graham also issued protective orders, requiring the parents to see to it that their children are in school. Parents who violate the order could face up to 20 days in jail.

Graham said "education is power" in this country and those who don't receive an education are "doomed."

"We've had parents in courtrooms stop us and thank us," Kessler said.

The sheriff's office truancy program is in its second year, Sgt. Kelly Clair said. Deputies gather information from local police departments, schools and community members and try to "sweep" each high school at least once every school year.

"For the most part, no one is really doing this," Clair, who participated in the sweep, said. "For years, they were able to run free. There's a lot of dope smoking that goes on and a lot of other drug activities. Burglaries tend to go down after you do one of these."

Students checked into class for their first period, then strolled off campus steadily between classes. Undercover deputies served as spotters pointing out to other deputies students who were leaving school.

Deputies encountered excuses such as one student who said he was grabbing a biscuit before school and another who said she was driving off campus to visit her probation officer.

"If I was your probation officer and you came to visit me (during school), I would violate you right there," Clair said.

There has been a consolidated effort by the juvenile court, county law enforcement and the Clayton County school system to reduce truancy.

Graham said reducing truancy helps reduce overall crime and helps keep juveniles out of the juvenile court system.