Arlington police increase efforts to stop truancy

ARLINGTON -- Police Chief Theron Bowman warns Arlington and Mansfield students that cutting class might land them in the back of a patrol car.

Arlington police are ramping up efforts to spot students who are skipping class and return them to school. They are launching a public awareness campaign asking area businesses to report children who are in public during school hours.

Officers have also established a hot line where they can check with district administrators if those children have a valid excuse to be off campus. If not, they will take them back to school and parents will be notified.

"They don't have a right to miss school. They have an obligation to be in class," Bowman said. "We are trying to improve attendance at school and thereby reduce school dropouts and associated social issues."

As part of the efforts, stickers and fliers are being pasted up at area businesses and schools with the slogan "Skipping school with your friends ... we'll call our friends" along with a Police Department phone number to report possible truants. So far, more than 100 businesses are participating, Deputy Police Chief James Hawthorne said.

Officers will also continue to visit the homes of chronically truant students to talk with parents or guardians about the consequences of those absences, which could include Class C misdemeanor citations or more serious neglect charges, Bowman said.

Anti-gang effort

Last school year, Bowman launched the home visits and told patrol officers to keep an eye out for truants as part of the department's strategy to combat gang activity and youth violence by keeping kids off the streets and in the classroom.

The effort was launched around the time an armed 18-year-old high school student was fatally shot during a street fight, which stirred concerns about gangs in Arlington neighborhoods. The city has at least 40 known gangs, some with members still in school.

"Today's truant can very well be tomorrow's gang member," Bowman has said.

The stickers and other marketing materials for the public outreach campaign were paid for by police forfeiture funds.

The department will also continue parental outreach through its Operation Accountability program, which began this summer. Through that effort, police officers and various faith-based organizations in the community have been encouraging parents to spend time with their children and talk with them about the importance of staying in school and out of trouble.

"That has more influence than ... anybody else can have on that child," Hawthorne said.

Extra eyes and ears

Arlington School Superintendent Jerry McCullough said the extra eyes and ears will help school administrators keep tabs on students who may be headed down the wrong path.

"If they are not in school, they are not going to be successful in school. They get behind, and then they give up," McCullough said. "When a student has given up, they have no interest in the class and there could be the possibility of disruptions. The main thing is to keep them on track and help them be successful so they want to be there."

School officials report that they've seen truancy start as early as age 5.

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639