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Our View: DeKalb can’t give up on truancy law

The DeKalb City Council should not abandon a proposal to address truant students.

Tweak it, change it, rearrange it, but don’t drop it. If Illinois School Report Card data is any guide, truancy is an issue in the city, and school and city officials should work more closely to combat it.

For the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which data is available, the chronic truancy rate for DeKalb High School was 12.2 percent of the 1,788 students enrolled.

Chronic truants are defined as students with nine or more unexcused absences in the past 180 school days. At DeKalb High, there were more than 200 such students, according to the data.

By comparison, the rate at Sycamore High School in 2012 was 3.3 percent, according to report card data.

At an August meeting, the DeKalb City Council considered a proposal that would address the problem. The proposal included fines of $25 for first-time offenders, $100 for second offenses and $500 for each subsequent offense. Parents could also be fined $100 for the first offense, $250 for the second and $500 for the third offense.

It laid out procedures where DeKalb police could detain students they suspected of skipping school and call District 428 or other schools to check their enrollment status.

The plan was derided by residents, many of them parents who home-school their children. They were concerned their children would be targeted by police as suspected truants.

It was also said that the county’s Regional Office of Education already has truancy officers, so the city’s involvement was unnecessary.

None of those complaints should be taken as a reason to scuttle the proposal, which addresses a problem that police school resource officers and District 428 officials have been concerned about for years.  

The proposal might not be perfect. For one, state law provides for fines of up to $100, not $500, for truancy violators. For another, there should be an effort made to address residents’ concerns, either through better communication or changes to the ordinance.

In reality, the proposed DeKalb ordinance probably doesn’t make it more likely that a home-schooled child would be detained – which is different from being arrested – because they are suspected of skipping school.

For one, DeKalb police do not patrol the streets looking for truants, Police Chief Eugene Lowery said. When police do encounter truant students, it’s usually because the children are involved in other incidents that require a police response, be it suspicious activity or a crime.

For another, police already have the power under state law to detain a student suspected of truancy. The point of the city ordinance was that it built in cooperation with District 428 officials.

As to the county’s truancy officers, the program is funded by a state grant and has seen a 25 percent funding decline since 2010, Regional Superintendent of Schools Amanda Christensen said. There are four part-time truancy caseworkers who serve the county’s 17,000 students, and most of their work is done in schools and through in-home visits. Truancy officers are unlikely to encounter students on the street, and can use any help they can get in assisting at-risk youth understand the importance of attending school.

“We should be building a network of support with whatever network or organization is willing to work with us,” Christensen said.

Ordinances similar to the one proposed in DeKalb exist in many communities around Illinois, and they do not appear to have led to the systematic harassment of home-schoolers.

When students skip school, they are more likely to get into all sorts of trouble – or be victims of crime themselves.

If allowing DeKalb police to become more active in keeping students in school can help reduce truancy and accompanying crime, it is worth the effort.

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