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Truancy bill scheduled

By Greg Gelpi

The first step to teaching children is getting them in the classroom, and a piece of legislation could help do just that.

The Truancy Reduction Act passed the Georgia House of Representatives 163-2 during the first week of the legislative session.

"Over a period of time, I've seen children playing in the streets when they should have been in school," Rep. Hinson Mosley, D-Jessup, one of the authors of the bill, said.

Parents could face a fine of up to $100, as many as 30 days imprisonment and community service if the bill is adopted. Parents held in contempt in connection with the truancy could incur a $1,000 fine and 20 days in jail for each count.

Clayton County Juvenile Court Judge Steve Teske supports the legislation, saying that getting all the groups involved in juvenile justice to work together is the solution to many juvenile issues.

"I really like that it attempts to make a collaboration that uses all of the essential community officials to work on truancy," Teske said.

The bill requires each county to establish a "school attendance protocol committee," which includes representatives from the school system, court system, law enforcement, family and children services and other agencies. Teske said Clayton County already works under such a system.

About four years ago, Teske and Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller formed the Truancy Reduction and Intervention Program, a program which collaborates the efforts of many agencies.

TRIP focused on middle school and high school students in its first year, but Teske found that many of the students with truancy problems developed the problems in elementary school and carried on the behavior as they moved into higher grades.

"The likelihood is that parents aren't getting them to school," he said. "You can't charge a 7-year-old or 8-year-old with truancy. They don't have the mindset for that."

Children at that age skip school because of their parents, Teske said. As a result, TRIP began charging parents with educational neglect.

Teske said he jailed a number of parents last year, including 10 parents in the last three months of school. The solution to truancy, though, isn't found solely in punishment, he said. Having resources on-hand in the courtroom to handle issues, such as mental health and drug problems, helps reduce truancy.

"The kid is only doing what the parent is allowing him to do," he said.

The difference between TRIP and the Truancy Reduction Act is that the act requires parents to sign a statement acknowledging the consequences of truancy on the first day of school. TRIP sends a letter after five unexcused absences.

Teske said show him a truant child and he can show several other problems that lead to the truancy. With the team approach, many of these problems can be addressed and fewer families fall through the cracks.

"Truancy is still an issue and will always be an issue," Teske said.

Since starting TRIP, truancy has steadily dropped each year, he said.

Rep. Darryl Jordan, D-Riverdale, said truancy harms the children who go to school as well as harming those who do not.

Parents and children interested in education and obeying the law are punished by those who are not. A school as a whole suffers when 95 percent of the students don't take assessment tests. Regardless of the test scores, if less than 95 percent of the school fails to take the test, then the school fails to make Adequate Yearly Progress, as required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"It's no longer about them anymore," Jordan said. "It's about the school."

He speaks from experience. As an eighth-grade teacher at Henry County Middle School and a 20-year educator, he said he knows what students need.

"With No Child Left Behind, it's imperative that we have children come to school as much as possible," Jordan said. "Attendance is extremely important, not only for the tests, but for the children to soak in the information."

The bill will reduce crime, build work ethic and help the state's school children reach the standards of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mosley said.

State Superintendent of Education Kathy Cox touted the bill as important for schools in reaching Adequate Yearly Progress. Often schools pass performance testing, but because they don't have 95 percent of the school taking the tests they are listed as not making Adequate Yearly Progress.

The Georgia Senate will take up the bill later in the session.