Elm City schools and police fight truancy

In a new and ambitious approach, city public schools are pairing with the New Haven Police Department to get chronically absent students to come back to school.

The New Haven Public Schools Truancy Initiative will involve multiple state and city agencies in its effort to cut down on truancy in the New Haven school district, which comprises 49 schools and serves over 20,000 students.

Initially announced during Mayor John DeStefano Jr.’s State of the City address this month, the plan — which includes sending police officers to truant students’ homes — was fleshed out this week at a Board of Education meeting.

Currently, about six to seven percent of the student population districtwide is absent per day, said Leida Pacini, chief of staff for the school district — though she said many of those students have excused absences.

“It’s not that we have an overwhelming amount of truancy,” she said.

Pacini said the plan is multi-pronged and extensive. Chief among its features will be a collaboration between the school district and the New Haven Police Department. Under the program, police officers will visit truant students’ homes in the evenings to discuss their attendance. In addition, she said, a districtwide attendance committee will be set up. All the K-8 schools in the district will have attendance committees with workers from the Department of Children and Families tracking attendance and contacting parents.

The district will try to pair at-risk youth with mentors, and Pacini said she is hopeful the New Haven Chamber of Commerce will give the children “incentives” for good attendance, although she did not specify what possible incentives might be.

Pacini and other city officials were quick to stress that the NHPD will not be taking any punitive measures against students when they make their rounds and will only come to peoples’ homes after days of absences and multiple efforts to contact parents. Pacini said having police show up in the evenings would send an explicit message to parents. Currently, she said, truancy workers only make house calls in the morning.

“Many parents work during the day,” she said. “We’re making an extra effort to talk to them about the importance of their children attending school. It’s better to have police do it.”

NHPD spokeswoman Bonnie Winchester said the truancy and police officers will be taking a holistic approach to the process — trying to figure out how the city can help parents so they will “encourage” their child to attend school more often.

Brian Perkins, the president of the New Haven Board of Education, said he did not think having police officers handling truancy would have a negative effect. Though he acknowledged that many people are wary of the police, he said the plan will help residents form a more positive view of law enforcement.

“Their mission is to protect and serve,” he said. “We’d like to change the paradigm of people thinking of the police as people only in there in criminal matters. This is about real civil assistance, being friends to parents and people there.”

Jeffie Frazier, principal at the K-8 Wexler Grant school, said the new plan is needed not because previous attempts to control truancy have failed, but because the situation in the schools and the city has changed. She pointed to rising youth crime and parents who work multiple jobs as evidence of this shift, and said the new effort’s human component is vital.

“A body is coming to talk about it,” she said. “This is not a piece of paper.”

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