Police Eliminating Truancy: A PET Project.
Agencies in the community debated who should take responsibility for this problem. Some argued that the school remained responsible for its students; others said parents should be held accountable for their children's behavior; still others thought it was a police problem. Instead of joining the debate, the North Miami Beach Police Department took action. Truancy became its PET Project: Police Eliminating Truancy by tackling its underlying causes and, at the same time, reducing the criminal behavior that resulted when juveniles spent their day on the street instead of in the classroom.
The North Miami Beach community knew it had a problem with truancy. Residents who completed a survey said that the police department should make controlling juveniles its number one priority. A crime analysis associated truants with criminal "hot spots," areas where a high number of Part I index crimes  took place. But the truancy problem hit close to home when the police chief, on his way to work after a chamber commerce meeting, spotted a large group of teens in the local video store at 8:30 a.m.
While the fastest, simplest way to get juveniles off the street and back in school might be to merely pick them up and take them, this solution would not address the underlying causes for their behavior, nor would it solve the problem. In fact, in the past, youths taken back to school simply would leave again when they got the chance. So, although officers still pick up truants, what they do with them afterward has changed.
The Truancy Evaluation Center
The PET Project assigns two officers to patrol in community hot spots during regular school hours, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. By conducting field interviews, the officers identify truants, defined as juveniles under age 16 with no legitimate reason to be out of school. For example, a school may have different holidays, or a student may have gotten suspended. The officers take truants to the Truancy Evaluation Center (TEC).
Located in an off-campus classroom, TEC shares space the department's Alternate to Suspension Program (ASP). Like its new counterpart, ASP aims to get juveniles off the street. Its intensive learning environment and disciplined approach have helped a number of students rededicate themselves to school.  The school teacher, counselor, and police officers who work with ASP students also staff TEC.
When students arrive at the center, the counselor calls the school to verify their status, then contacts their parents. The parents have the option of picking up their children, and sometimes they do. Other parents leave their children at the center, often because they feel they have no control over their children's actions. These kids frequently become chronic truants. Many eventually drop out of school and may become a part of the juvenile justice system.
The counselor administers a survey to the students who stay at TEC. Questions include why they skip school and whether they have committed crimes while out of school. This information not only helps the counselor evaluate the students, but it also helps the department determine the underlying causes of the students' truancy. Together with the demographic information from the PET officer's field interview card, it serves as a record of the students' introduction to TEC and allows the department to track the youths.
After the counselor evaluates the students, one of three things may happen. If students have no history of truancy, PET officers take them back to school. Suspended students take part in ASP, and about 50 percent successfully complete the program and return to school without incident. Students who seem to be making truancy a habit usually meet with their parents and the counselor to discuss possible solutions to their problems. The counselor provides referrals to other social service agencies, and the children participate in ASP classes that include anger management, drug and alcohol awareness, and gang prevention.
Solutions to the Truancy Problem
Some solutions to students' truancy come from the answers to perhaps the most important survey question: "Why were you truant from school?" Twenty percent said they missed the bus. Investigation revealed that many bus drivers would not wait for latecomers, even if they saw the students walking down the street toward the bus stop. The school board stepped in and remedied that problem. An additional 20 percent of truant students had been suspended, so they attended ASP.
Thirty percent said they simply did not like school. These students may become chronic truants. To help these students, the department entered into a partnership with the Miami-Dade State Attorney's Office, whose existing Truancy Intervention Program (TIP) targets chronic truants and holds parents accountable for their children's behavior. The program, which uses a computerized system to track the youths, combines early intervention with prosecutorial enforcement of Florida's compulsory education laws. According to statistics from the state attorney's previous experience with the program, 75 percent of TIP students need only one meeting to break their cycle of truancy. The rest eventually get expelled.
In the spring of 1999, the department decided to collaborate with the state attorney's office in this successful program. At that time, the program focused on one middle school. Now targeting both middle and high school students, the department assists in the investigative process, picks up truants, and attends weekly meetings with the youths, their parents, and representatives from the school board and the attorney's office. During these meetings, the public officials essentially lay down the law, reminding students and their parents that in Florida, children have to stay in school until age 16. They also offer the parents assistance in keeping their kids in school, and a counselor follows up. By the end of the school year, 75 percent of the children who had gone through this program did not get picked up again.
Other students have special out needs that keep them. One boy told the counselor that he did not like school because the other children made fun of him when he read. He actually had a learning disability and putting him in a special reading class solved his truancy problem.
From its inception, the PET project has had four goals: 1) to identify the primary reasons why students become truant; 2) to get truants off the streets; 3) to reduce the number of Part I index crimes that truants have committed; and 4) to track chronic truants. The survey each truant completes at TEC helps pinpoint why they skip school and, in the process, may stop them from doing so. Proactive patrol, in conjunction with a PET hotline that allows community residents and business owners to notify police when they see juveniles who should be in school, get truants off the street. To date PET officers have picked up over 400 truants.
In North Miami Beach, Part I Crimes--particularly burglary, larceny-theft, and motor vehicle theft as well as criminal mischief--all have decreased. Specifically, apartment burglaries decreased 13 percent; residential burglaries, 19 percent; vehicle burglaries, 22 percent; motor vehicle theft, 32 percent; grand theft, 13 percent; petit theft, 17 percent; and criminal mischief, 19 percent. Can the department credit the PET Project with these crime reductions? To answer that question, the department's crime analyst carefully tracked and mapped these crimes, many of which occurred during regular school hours. The TEC surveys revealed that 20 percent of students admitted to committing crimes while they were truant, and in fact, a review of previous juvenile arrests associated youths with these property crimes. More-over, 40 percent of the truants who reside in North Miami Beach have a criminal past of some sort. Of the truants who live within a 45-mile radius of North Miami Beach, 30 percent have a criminal past. Many of these juveniles have committed the crimes that have occurred in North Miami Beach during school hours. In short, the PET Project has helped decrease crime in the area.
Can chronic truants be saved? By tracking chronic truants and sending letters home, the department puts them and their parents on notice that the police, and in fact the entire community, are watching. This may keep them from progressing to more serious behavior and get them back in school. If not, the database at least allows the department to maintain the records it needs to perform crime analysis, conduct investigations, and implement additional crime prevention strategies.
When children skip school, it quickly becomes a police problem, especially if parents feel helpless to control their kids. In North Miami Beach, truant students roamed the streets, alarming residents. Many committed crimes. Through its Police Eliminating Truancy project, the department not only gets truants off the street, but it also attempts to destroy the roots of truancy.
The department's Truancy Evaluation Center provides a confidential, supportive environment where counselors try to discover the causes of a student's problems and devise possible solutions. Oftentimes, a simple solution, such as asking bus drivers to wait for late students or placing children in special classes, can get students back into the classroom. Working with parents and other government agencies offers hope to the worst truants. Chronic offenders may need more than this collaborative approach can provide. Unfortunately, for students who feel imprisoned by school, the next step might actually prison. As the PET Project evolves, it may catch these youths before they go too far. School should help students prepare for rewarding careers, not turn them into career criminals. The PET Projects may help them do just that.
Chief Berger leads the North Miami Beach, Florida, Police Department. The research planner and administrator for the North Miami Beach Police Department, Ms. Wind also servers as program director for the PET Project.
(1.) See, e.g., U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States 1998 (Washington, DC, 1999).
(2.) Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson make up the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program's Part I index crimes.
(3.) ASP generally does not target high school students because in Florida, juveniles 16 years and older are not legally required to stay in school. See William B. Berger and Alan P. Graham, "suspended Students: A Practice Approach," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, July 1998, 7-8.
Truancy Evaluation Center Survey Results
1. Why were you truant from school?
30% - Do not like school
20% - Missed bus
20% - Suspended from school
15% - Sick
15% - Other
2. What do you do when you skip school?
40% - Hang out with friends
30% - Stay home
10% - Visit boyfriend/girlfriend
10% - Look for a job
10% - Other
3. Do your parents know you skip school?
70% - No
15% - Yes
15% - Don't skip school
4. Have you ever committed a crime or gotten into criminal mischief while truant?
70% - No
20% - Yes
10% - Unknown
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|Publication:||The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2000|
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