Truancy officer may be laid off

Posted: Monday, January 26, 2004

Every truant has a story, says Bonnie Lanz, the truancy tracker for the Juneau School District.

When a Juneau teenager's father died last summer, the grieving boy was angry. When the school year rolled around, he was sometimes late to school and didn't always stick around.

"I had some hard times getting to school on time and staying in class, 'cause my dad just passed away this summer," said the boy. To protect his privacy, the Empire is not using his name.

Those attendance problems triggered concern from teachers and a visit from Lanz.

Lanz, who also lost a parent when young, talked to the boy and guided him toward counseling for his grief. The boy regularly attends school now, she said.

That's the sort of intervention that would be rare in the future if the district saves $41,000 by eliminating Lanz's job as part of a package of $2.17 million in proposed cuts for next school year. Principals and assistant principals say they're too busy to do everything that Lanz does.

"What do you do with speeders on the highway if you don't have the police officer to ticket speeders? It doesn't happen," said Dale Staley, an assistant principal at Juneau-Douglas High School.

At any given time, about 10 percent of Juneau's middle schoolers and high schoolers are absent, according to a district report on the 2002-03 school year. About 6.5 percent of elementary students are absent, as well.

Over a four-year period, about a third of Juneau-Douglas High School students will drop out. Many dropouts are seriously deficient in credits. First they stop coming to some of their classes. Then they stop coming to school at all.

Some students wouldn't miss the truancy tracker. JDHS seniors Ray Mueca and Anthony Manacio V said they don't know Lanz, but they think the job is a waste of money.

"A lot of people skip, and you can't really stop it," Mueca said. "They're paying someone to do a principal's job."

"It'll help some kids. It's pointless for the other half," Manacio said.

This is the second year Lanz has tracked down truants for the district. The position had been vacant for a year and was filled part-time for part of the year for several years before that, she said.

This is the first school year for a city ordinance, promoted by Lanz, that allows school authorities to cite students for truancy and parents for not getting their children to school. It's a much quicker and surer method than waiting for the state to prosecute a parent.

The fine is $100, although Juneau District Court Judge Peter Froehlich routinely suspends it for a month to see if the student's attendance improves, Lanz said. The judge, who could not be reached for comment, also orders students to get a diploma or a GED certificate.

"Having a wall for a family or student to hit makes a difference," said Barb Mecum, principal at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School. "It puts quite a bit more teeth in our policy."

Lanz works with students between the ages of 7 and 16 - the mandated years of school attendance - who have at least five unexcused absences.

The new ordinance has grabbed truants' attention, principals said.

"Since the ordinance went into effect and we had reasons to enforce it, I have received a lot more calls from parents concerned about their (children's) attendance," said Staley at JDHS.

Parents were less likely to respond to letters the school sent home after children had missed five, eight and 10 days of any given class, he said.

In a comparison of the first five months of a school year, the number of students with five unexcused absences dropped from 358 last year to 222 this year, Lanz told the Juneau School Board last week.

By Jan. 20, she had issued citations to 12 students, 10 of whom were JDHS students, and to two parents, one of an elementary student and one of a middle-schooler.

Lanz said the citations are a last resort. Her real work consists of talking to students and parents to find out what's going wrong, then working with teachers, counselors and principals to solve the problem.

There are many reasons students are truant, Staley said. Some students aren't comfortable in a class, or they're being picked on, or they have medical problems or problems at home.

Some students stay home to take care of younger siblings, Mecum said. Some parents work at night and aren't awake in the morning to get children off to school.

Some students find school so academically challenging that they give up, Lanz said. She hears high school students counting the days until they reach 16 and can drop out, because they don't think they can pass the state exit exam and get a diploma.

At times Lanz, who has worked with emotionally disturbed children, goes to students' homes to retrieve the children. Sometimes her home visits are accompanied by social workers or police officers if children are living in an unsafe situation.

"I am often the eyes and ears of a home they may not have been in," Lanz said, referring to child protection workers. "It's a different world when you end up in the homes of some of these students."

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