For teens, skipping class puts brakes on driving

Nearly 13,000 Georgia teens had their driver’s licenses yanked in 2010 for just one reason: They had too many unexcused school absences.

Under state law, 10 or more unexcused absences are all it takes for that coveted coming-of-age privilege of driving to come to a screeching halt. At least temporarily.

Students generally have ample warning about the law that’s more than a decade old. It’s spelled out in the student handbook, plastered on posters in some high school attendance offices and underscored in red-flag letters that go out, typically, after five or seven absences.

In Cobb County, an automated calling system alerts parents when unexcused absences reach the thresholds of five, seven, 10 and 15 days. That same system automatically prints a letter for the school to mail and sends an email to the parent, said Paul Pursell, the district’s truancy coordinator.

Yet students in virtually every county lost their license for a year or until they turned 18, when the law no longer applies, according to data collected by the state Department of Drivers Services and obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Gwinnett, home of the state’s largest school system, had the most absence-related license suspensions in 2010, with 2,269 out of a statewide total of 12,974, or about 17.5 percent, the data shows. Large numbers of license suspensions also were reported in most metro counties, including Clayton (619), DeKalb (960), Forsyth (503), Fulton (1,156) and Paulding (596).

The state suspended the licenses of 941 students in Cobb County, including a couple of friends of Osborne High senior Myra Hernandez.

“I told them that’s what you get. You should stay at school,” Hernandez said.

The law, she said, is “a really good idea” and a good motivator for students who can’t wait to start driving, herself included.

David Lowry of Duluth doubted the law registered with his 15-year-old daughter because she likes school and doesn’t skip class. But oft-absent students might respond to a fear tactic, Lowry said.

“With kids you have to hit them where it hurts, and that’s probably not being able to drive,” he said.

About half of the 50 states have laws linking student attendance to driving privileges, said Matt Lenard, policy analyst for the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). West Virginia was the first, with a law in 1988, he said.

Since the late 1990s, Georgia has been suspending the licenses of minors who drop out of school, miss 10 consecutive days of school or rack up 10 or more days of unexcused absences in a current or previous school.

The law also extends beyond truants to include students who are suspended from school for serious infractions, such as threatening a teacher; possession of drugs, alcohol or weapons; sexual offenses; or injuring another student.

In each case, the driver’s license is suspended for one year or until the student turns 18. There’s some wiggle room. Most schools give students and parents a chance to dispute the accuracy of their attendance report. A student also has a way to appeal and can apply for permission to drive to and from work if with a suspended license.

Does it work?

Most officials appear to gauge the effects of these laws based largely on anecdotal evidence, which is why the SREB is encouraging states to collect better data, Lenard said.

He said officials in West Virginia are very supportive of the law, and, in Tennessee, officials say it’s helped to drive up their graduation rates.

Cobb’s Pursell believes its been a “significant deterrent.” Whenever he meets with student groups and tells them that excessive unexcused absences can put their driver’s license at risk, there’s “always an audible gasp,” he said.

Paul Cromie, the attendance officer at North Gwinnett High School in Suwanee, said freshmen and sophomores seem most responsive, likely because they are so eager to be able to start driving.

Older students are sometimes more indifferent because they realize their driving status won’t be affected by their school record once they turn 18, he said.

Students who run afoul of the law, Pursell said, usually fall into two camps: students who have no interest in a driver’s license or no hope of acquiring transportation because of their family’s economics; and those who think it can’t happen to them or they can find a way to circumvent it.

“The reality is: Sometimes it’s not a motivator,” said David Johns, director of health and social services for Gwinnett County Schools.