Cutting Down on Students Cutting Class

Police often encounter kids who should be in school riding the subway instead.

Police often encounter kids who should be in school riding the subway instead. FILE PHOTO

By KYLA CALVERT

The red brick building at the intersections of Alabama and Riverdale Avenues in East New York, Brooklyn does not attract much attention. It could just as easily contain nondescript apartments as cluttered, stuffy offices.

On school days, a wrought iron gate at the back of the building stands open. Through the gate and down a short flight of concrete stairs, a black door opens into a dark auditorium with a low ceiling.

When police from the 73rd, 75th and 77th precincts encounter kids riding the subway, kids hanging out on street corners, kids who should otherwise be in school—this is where they bring them. The Kings County District Attorney’s office operates six sites like it across the borough, all of them part of the Truancy Reduction Alliance to Contact Kids (TRACK).

Around 10:30 on a recent morning, the first kids to arrive are five 14 and 15-year-old girls. They are dressed almost uniformly in skinny jeans. Each of the girls sucks their teeth and rolls her eyes as officers scan their bodies with metal-detecting wands. One by one they are cleared and walk down three steps to the sunken area of the auditorium where they will spend the morning waiting next to other teenagers, in orderly rows of folding chairs, who similarly thought they were going to spend the day free of adult supervision.

The adults here, though, seem to genuinely care about the kids that move through their program. Valerie Rivera, a social worker for the Disctrict Attorney’s office, moves quickly between her desk and a small room at the back of the hall, past the truant kids who sit slumped over in folding chairs. She uses the space to speak confidentially with each child. She will refer the kids who need additional social services to an appropriate program close to where they live. If it is a program TRACK works with regularly, she will fax over the children’s details so the agency can follow up with the family. While Rivera can interact with up to 30 truant kids a day, far more than a social worker with a regular caseload would, she doesn’t often have the opportunity to see whether her brief interventions make a difference.

“I give the parents my business card when they come pick the kids up,” Rivera said. “Considering the amount of kids that we see, very few of the parents follow up.”

Started in 1998, TRACK is a collaboration of the District Attorney’s office, the New York Police Department, the Department of Education and the Administration for Children’s Services.

The Kings County District Attorney, Charles J. Hynes began the program following a highly publicized court case of the man who killed 8-year-old Justina Morales. Morales, her younger brother and mother were repeatedly physically abused by the man, Morales’ mother’s boyfriend at the time, before Morales was killed. Morales was absent from school more than 100 days, never showing up for a single day of classes at a school her mother transferred her to shortly before her death. Better tracking of students transferring schools or with chronic absences was identified as one possible way that Morales’ murder could have been prevented.

“Often truancy issues are a symptom of something deeper,” said Nicole Barron, executive director of the Truancy Bureau at the Kings County District Attorney’s Office. The goal of TRACK is to intercept kids before those issues become out of control problems. “What the staff does here is all triage based on the kids’ behavior, or if they’re very young or already emotionally disturbed when they walk in the door.” On any given day, according to Karen Chambers, the site coordinator, the center in East New York can see as few as two and as many as 30 truants. On busy days like this one, the hall comes to resemble a large waiting room, where a handful of adults try to catch a few of the teens falling through the cracks.

As police arrive with more truants who must each be screened with the metal-detecting wand, most take the tack of the first set of girls, some setting their weight on one foot, hips thrown to the side. One boy, shorter and thinner than any of the others that will arrive that morning, teeters as the officer tells him to lift one foot and then the next, refusing to touch the metal banister he is standing in front of that the kids are told to grab onto for balance.

The truants have to leave their backpacks by the table where police officers sign them into the center. They are not allowed to talk to each other. Without books or magazines to read or cell phones to text with, they sit, gazes affixed straight ahead or slumped over, heads in their hands. The only persistent sound is the muted squawking coming from the police walkie-talkies.

By 12 o’clock, when the window for picking up truants ends, about 25 kids have been brought in. The staff have been calling phone numbers the teens provided to the officers who picked them up for an hour or more. Many of the numbers are for their friends or just made up, according to Chambers and Rivera.

As parents are reached, Gloria Chatmon, from the Department of Education, finds the children in the Department of Education’s system and adds the TRACK site visit in their record. She also searches the names children have given to find the correct phone numbers for reaching their parents and guardians.

The first children to be picked up are those who gave real phone numbers to the officers. The parents arrive exasperated. A mother and grandfather step back and turn their dropped-jaw gazes towards the boy they are picking up when Officer Marcy Higgins relates the boy’s attendance record—since September, this is the 27th day of school he has missed.

As kids start getting picked up by parents and other adult relatives, the remaining teens become more interested in making sure the numbers Rivera and Chambers are calling put them in touch with a parent or guardian. A boy dressed in sagging jeans that taper to a close fit around his ankles and a black hooded sweatshirt, has been moved several times by the police officers to keep him from talking to the other kids. Once he is put in a chair facing the officers’ table, he drapes himself across his hard, metal chair as close to horizontal as possible, insisting that he is about to have an asthma attack despite all evidence to the contrary. By the time two or three more truants have been picked up, he has quieted down and draws Chambers’ attention, asking “Do you need another number from me?” After Chambers has the correct phone number for his mother at work, he asks regularly whether Chambers has been able to reach her. When Chambers tells him he has missed 51 school days, it registers as a point of pride. “That ain’t nothin’,” he says, sucking his teeth.

Not all of the teens are eager to have their parents notified. A girl with shoulder-length braids tied back in a ponytail sits near the staffers’ desks dressed in tight magenta sweatpants tucked into her beige Uggs and a red hoodie. The name she has given the police officers is not in the Department of Education’s system. The details of her story change with every retelling. When Chambers asks her to retrieve her school bag, the girl claims that the name on the notebooks is not hers. They belong to her sister, she insists.

After a few tries, Chatmon locates the details for the student whose name is all over the notebooks the girl is carrying in the record system. After contacting the principal of the school, she confirms that the girl is the owner of both the notebooks and the name written on them.

“We get lots of liars, everyday,” Chambers said. “Especially the junior high kids. They are in that transition period where they are out of elementary school and thinking that they’re almost grown.”

Whether an intervention by Rivera makes an impact on the behavior of chronically truant kids, the main goal of the program is to keep them safe, according to Barron. Adolescents skipping school are often the victims or perpetrators of daytime crimes, which went down significantly between 1998, when the program began, and 2004, when the D.A.’s office conducted a study of Brooklyn crime statistics, Barron said.

“All of Brooklyn has become safer,” she said. “It has to do with police department and D.A. crime prevention programs.” It is this network of programs that TRACK is a part of—preventative initiatives aimed at making New York City a more hospitable place to live, that often make up the first line of cuts during funding crises like the one the city is experiencing now. While the program hasn’t yet made any staffing cuts, there is a hiring freeze. According to Barron, they need at least one more site coordinator to ease the demands on their already overburdened centers.

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