D300 tackles truancy as state rate rises
By Emily McFarlan Miller firstname.lastname@example.org January 30, 2013 10:14PM
School Resource Officer John Galason hands a student a truancy ticket Tuesday at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville. Truancy ticket fines can range from $75 to a court appearance in which a $1000 fine or community service is issued. January 29, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: March 2, 2013 11:32AM
CARPENTERSVILLE — School Resource Officer John Galason has never understood the mural — a black-and-white stencil of Matthew Broderick in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” on the wall in one of the hallways at Dundee-Crown High School.
“I don’t understand why we have Ferris Bueller on the wall. He absconded from class,” Galason said.
The school resource officer passed that mural several times Tuesday morning as he walked from classroom to classroom with a stack of nine white tickets in his hand, handing them out to students who, like Bueller, had ditched school.
One went to a boy who protested he’d been sick and asked his mom to call and excuse his absence. Another was given to a boy who had missed eighth period 23 times — “because he wants to go home early,” Galason said.
Then, brushing his hands and declaring the work “done,” he returned to his office, to a list of chronically truant students 24 pages long, 12 names to a page.
But fewer than half were highlighted in green. Those are the ones who “continue to be bad,” he said.
“It takes a lot of time — and on top of everything else that happens at this school. When I have downtime, this is what I do,” Galason said.
That’s because truancy is one of the priorities this school year of the Community Unit School District 300 Board Legislative Committee.
That comes as District 300 pushes all the communities in the 118-square-mile district to adopt truancy ordinances similar to the one crafted by district and village officials in Carpentersville last year. It allows police to ticket students or parents for truancy.
Already, that ordinance has started to dial back the numbers. While the number of chronic truants more than doubled last year in Illinois, it has dropped noticeably at Dundee-Crown, which ranked No. 10 in the state for truancy just the year before.
“It is working,” Galason said.
“They know when they see me in the hall with a stack of white tickets. They don’t want to be the one called out of class.”
Last school year began with more-stringent state laws determining when the state considers a student truant.
A student now is considered chronically truant after he or she is absent from school without a valid excuse for 5 percent of the past 180 school days, according to the Illinois State Board of Education. On most school districts’ calendars, that means just nine missed days a year.
Previously, that had been 10 percent, or a missed day roughly every two weeks.
That likely explains why the number of chronic truants more than doubled across the state last school year: from 3.2 to 8.6 percent, according to ISBE and Illinois Interactive Report Card data.
That number also jumped in District 300 — from 6.1 to 8.1 — and nearby Elgin School District U46, where it more than tripled, from 1.9 to 6.8 percent, according to the report card.
But truancy already had hit a remarkable high at Dundee-Crown in the 2010-11 school year, with nearly a third of the student population — 30.8 percent — chronically truant, the report card said.
Thanks to an effort by the school and community, that number moved in the right direction last year, falling about three percentage points to 27.7 percent.
Galason hadn’t been aware that truancy was a problem at Dundee-Crown. So it was “embarrassing” when he saw its Top 10 ranking splashed across the cover of The Courier-News in November 2011, he said.
And he decided to do something about it.
In five years as a school resource officer, he had tackled gangs at the school, which has gone from “littered with gangs” to “no gang problem,” he said. Next it was locker room thefts, which have dropped from as many as seven a week to two for the entire fall semester, he said.
The only action District 300 could take against chronically truant students was to suspend them, according to the district. So Galason began looking at what other districts were doing — namely, at truancy ordinances already on the books in Elgin, St. Charles, Geneva and Batavia, he said.
The school resource officer took a similar ordinance to the Carpentersville Village Board last year — one that would allow police to ticket students or parents for a child’s truancy at a school within the village, carrying a $75 fine or notice of court appearance, he said.
School officials and police also worked closely with the local court systems to come up with positive interventions for those students, as well as to stress the goal of the ordinance: to get students back in school, according to the district. Judges can fine students up to $1,000, Galason said, but usually give community service.
The result is, from last fall to this fall, the number of truancy tickets written at Dundee-Crown went down from 214 to 35, according to the district.
The school resource officer usually writes tickets for students after they’ve missed a total of 10 days, and he passes out those tickets twice a week, he said.
That drop in tickets isn’t because he’s become more lenient. There just aren’t as many to write or students to find, he said.
“Not being truant myself, I don’t have too much experience with this, but I have heard students talk about it in the hall,” said Mary McNicholas, a junior at Dundee-Crown and student member of the Board Legislative Committee.
“It’s a good incentive to be in school — to not get a ticket.”
McNicholas, Galason and District 300 Safety Officer Gary Chester explained the success of the Carpentersville truancy ordinance during the recent District 300 Legislative Reception at Jacobs High School in Algonquin.
And they explained the district’s push for a similar ordinance in all its local villages, so it can “be consistent across the district on how we deal with truancy,” Chester said.
Among the local officials at that reception was West Dundee Village President Larry Keller.
As a retired teacher, Keller said he knows how much students miss when they are absent.
“If a student is truant, oftentimes there’s a problem a little greater than they didn’t show up to class because they’re sick,” he said.
And he thinks a truancy ordinance is something the West Dundee Village Board would like to pass, he said.
“It’s what we can do to help out,” Keller said. “We want to help make those consequences meaningful so education can continue for everybody.”
Sleepy Hollow Village President Stephen Pickett said he also planned to bring a similar ordinance to his village board. He had been aware of the ordinance Carpentersville passed, but that happened at the same time the village’s longtime police chief had retired, and, he said, “to be honest, it dropped between the cracks.”
“Occasionally,” Pickett said, “you need to be kicked in the rear end.”