Truancy a lingering problem, with jail a last resort

If your child misses too much school, you can get arrested.

That's what happened Thursday to two DeKalb County mothers.

Cheryl McCoy and Danelle Swanson were led away in cuffs, each charged with educational neglect, after DeKalb Sheriff's deputies pounded on their doors.

"When we get eight unexcused absences, that's when we are getting involved," said Sherry Boston, the DeKalb solicitor-general. The DeKalb County School District referred 900 cases to her office last year for truancy violations, she said.

The sweep underscores a nagging problem: truancy increases the likelihood that a student will eventually drop out. And students who drop out are likely to occupy a low rung on the economic ladder or a prison cell. Nine of 10 prison inmates in Georgia are high school dropouts

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In Cobb County, the number of court referrals last year was around 350, said Paul Pursell, the school system's truancy coordinator. Police complain to him that truants commit daytime burglaries and other mischief.

"I have seen entirely too many kids who have sustained substantial physical injury or have been killed when they should have been in the classroom," Pursell said.

Denise Revels, the coordinator of social work services for Atlanta Public Schools, said students who fail to attend until age 16, as the law requires, affect everyone. "They don't become productive citizens," she said. "So it's a societal problem."

Both Atlanta and Cobb schools refer cases to the courts after 10 unexcused absences, but school counselors and social workers get involved far earlier, typically after three unexplained absences.

Sometimes, a student doesn't like school because of poor vision. Other times, it's embarrassment over clothes or emotional toil due to a parental split.

School officials link parents with social services that try to help. This summer, Atlanta experimented with a month-long summer camp that placed 40 truant middle school students with Atlanta police officers. The kids took field trips, did community service, attended police training and bonded with cops, who plan to follow up with them during this school year.

"Court is really the last resort for us," Revels said.

Sometimes, though, it's the only option. About 70 of those 900 DeKalb court referrals last year failed to appear for their meeting with the judge, leading to bench warrants for their arrest, said Sgt. Adrion Bell, spokesman for Sheriff Tom Brown.

Swanson, 26, failed didn't show for court after her child missed 16 days of kindergarten. McCoy, 43, skipped court after her teenager missed 37 days of middle school.

Boston asks judges to impose one day in jail for each day of school missed, but only two or three cases actually got that far last year, she said. "The vast majority of our parents just need help and guidance."

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