AWOL No More : Long Beach Is Rounding Up, Returning Truants to School

Times Staff Writer

The teen-ager was fast asleep when Long Beach Officers Jack Pletka and Larry Laingor walked into his bedroom and shook him. The boy’s mother stood nearby, but that morning she wasn’t giving the orders.

“Get dressed,” Laingor said as the surprised youth gazed up at the uniformed officer. “You’re going to school.”

Pletka and Laingor don’t usually pay house calls in their search for students skipping school. Most days, they and 10 fellow officers cruise around schools and through alleys, stopping at burger joints, the beach and other teen-age hot spots.

But in the case of the sleeping teen-ager, they responded to pleas from the boy’s frustrated mother. “She was at her wit’s end,” Laingor recalled. “They lived by Belmont Shore and he was just taking his surfboard and going out.”

Truancy is taken seriously in Long Beach, where city police officers such as Pletka team up with school district attendance control officers such as Laingor. Local officials tout the 44-year-old anti-truancy program as the oldest of its kind in the state and say it is unique because it combines police and school district officers in patrol cars.

Sent on Weekly Sweeps

In recent months, police have cracked down on truancy by sending most of the department’s juvenile division, about 30 officers, on three-hour weekly sweeps. Police Chief Lawrence Binkley started the sweeps because he believes the technique helps lower daytime crime.

Between September, 1987, and February, 1988, police picked up 1,174 youngsters who belonged in schools in Long Beach or a nearby city. But since the sweeps began last September the number has more than quadrupled to 5,006 truants. The district has 67,107 students, of which approximately 58,800 are in Long Beach.

Figures Contradictory

Although the dramatic increase in the number of students picked up could indicate a serious problem, the district traditionally has had a low rate of unexcused absences, which include truancy. Last year, 2.3% of the district’s high school students and 3.3% of the junior high students were absent without an excuse, according to Lewis Prilliman, the district’s director of research.

But school board member Jerry Shultz said that the high numbers from the recent sweeps indicate many more students are cutting class and getting away with it. That not only means the students lose a chance to get an education, but the district loses money that the state allocates based on enrollment. During the 1987-88 school year, the district lost about $4.1 million because of unexcused absences, which includes truants and children on vacation or religious holidays, according to Prilliman.

“The kids are out there but we’re not picking them up,” Shultz said.

Shultz said he plans to urge the board to set up a district police department. School police would carry weapons, be empowered to make arrests and have the authority to stop and search students. Shultz also is working with school administrators on a plan that would force students who are suspended to attend a special education program, Project Stars. Rather than sitting at home, they will be in a strict classroom-type setting, he said.

“The key,” Shultz said, “is discipline.”

The joint city-school district patrol teams “do an excellent job--when they have time to do it,” said Shultz, who works as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. “But what I’ve been hearing from the grapevine is that they spend most of their time on (police) calls” instead of looking for truants, Shultz said.

According to Police Sgt. Chris Marino, the six teams of police and school officers do not typically respond to service calls. But “if there was a robbery nearby or if they got a call for backup, they’re policemen and they’ll have to answer that,” Marino said.

But usually, Marino said, “the only calls they spend their time on are related to schools.” Truancy is a big part of that job. They also respond to calls about child abuse and other matters related to youngsters, he added.

Most Have Own Police

Most of the state’s largest school districts have their own police, Shultz said. Long Beach Unified School District is the third largest in California. The local school district once maintained a force of officers who, when on duty, had the same authority as police. Five years ago, the Legislature ordered districts to choose between their own security department or police department, according to Carl A. Cohn, attendance service office director. The Long Beach district opted for security officers.

Marino said Long Beach police do not object to Shultz’s plan. “Whatever they want to do is fine with us,” Marino said.

But school board President Harriet Williams and member Bobbie Smith questioned recently whether the district could afford a police department. Williams said the board chose five years ago to hire security officers instead of creating a police department partly because of the cost. Shultz could not say how much the change would cost, but he suspects it would not be substantially more than what the district is already paying for its security officers.

District Supt. Tom Giugni said he opposes a new police department because “I’m not certain how much it will do for us. We have a concern (about truancy), and we believe that what we’re doing is successful. And we can’t let up on it.”

Pletka and other anti-truancy officers contend that the current system gives both the city and the school district their money’s worth. Pletka said the mere presence of the officers on the street discourages gang fights and crimes. Sometimes officers even get a chance to steer a youngster onto the right path, they say.

“Last year, while we were sitting at a restaurant,” Laingor recalled, “a kid came up to us and said that we picked him up (years ago) and took him to the truancy center, and it really changed him.”

Students picked up by police are taken back to school, where the penalty often translates into after-school detention, or to the truancy center downtown, where they are counseled and often released to their parents. Students are not suspended for truancy.

“Some kids,” Pletka said, “you catch them just in time. They’re still afraid of doing something wrong. Maybe they’re afraid of authority. (But) when they don’t have any respect for themselves, then you can’t save them.”

On a recent weekday, Pletka and Laingor netted most of their truants around lunch time.

During a quick stop at a Jack-in-the-Box hamburger stand, for example, they found three students eating french fries. Two of them did not have a school pass that would have permitted them to be off campus, and that got them an unsolicited free ride back to their school in the back of the officers’ patrol car. Once at Millikan High School, Assistant Principal Bob Brooks greeted them.

“I haven’t seen you in here before,” Brooks said to a 16-year-old boy.

“No, it’s my first time,” the youth replied.

But Brooks was surprised to see a 17-year-old again.

“This is the first time I’ve seen you since our last talk,” Brooks said. Turning to the officers, the assistant principal said, “This young man, since he became a senior, 99.9% of the time he has made good decisions. . . .

“Hey, I expect you to be here, not hopping fences,” Brooks warned.

Brooks let the high school senior go back to class without a penalty. His friend, the 16-year-old, however, was sent to a detention room by another assistant principal.

Most teen-agers interviewed recently seemed to take the officers’ questioning in stride. One girl was on her way to Jefferson Junior High School when the officers stopped her. Although she’s 13, they thought she looked older and belonged at Wilson High School. She showed them proof that she is a Jefferson student. The officers wished her a good day and sent her on her way. The eighth- grader later said, “I wasn’t really scared. I just thought it was strange.”

More police departments are considering truancy sweeps. Earlier this year, for example, the Laguna Beach Police Department announced it had begun periodic sweeps to round up truants.

The U.S. Supreme Court last year let stand a California court ruling that allows police to stop and question suspected truants. That ruling stemmed from a 1983 Newport Beach case in which a Fullerton youth was stopped by police and asked why he was not in school. After further inquiries, officers found that the youth was carrying LSD under his jacket and they arrested him.

In Long Beach, officials also are looking at another program to help reduce truancy and provide an alternative to short-term suspension.

Patterned after a program in Inglewood, the proposed Project Stars would probably be housed in a church or a business, according to the school district’s Cohn. Rather than leave students idle in the truancy center or alone to wander by themselves when suspended, Project Stars would provide students with extensive counseling and make-up studies to help them get back on track, said school board member Shultz.

Because the program is only in the planning stage, neither Cohn nor Shultz could say how much it would cost or how the district would pay for it.