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Clinton Announces Effort to Curb School Truancy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In another election-year gesture to middle-class families with children, President Clinton on Wednesday announced a new federally directed effort to curb school truancy.

Clinton told a National Education Assn. convention that the national standard should be “zero tolerance” for kids playing hooky.

“Truancy is a warning signal that a child is in trouble and is often a gateway to crime,” Clinton said. “The street is not an acceptable alternative to the classroom.”

Administration officials said that truancy is growing nationwide. But they could provide no statistics to support the assertion and offered no explanation why the initiative was being announced in the middle of an election year without such evidence.

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Clinton’s opposition to truancy thus joins his support for school uniforms, curfews and silent classroom prayer as part of a cluster of values initiatives by which he hopes to attract the backing of middle-class voters--even though the federal government’s role in such matters is peripheral.

Clinton stressed that school attendance is almost entirely a local, not federal, concern. But he said that Washington could help by providing information about programs that work and giving advice about the legality of local actions.

The federal Department of Education will spend $10 million in discretionary funds to pay for anti-truancy pilot programs in 25 school districts, officials said.

The only other concrete step being taken to deal with the problem is the distribution of an 11-page “Manual to Combat Truancy” to every school district in America.

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The Dole campaign dismissed the truancy initiative as a transparent political ploy and camouflage for the administration’s poor record fighting drugs.

“Bill Clinton is only talking about keeping kids in school because he’s failed to keep drugs out of school,” said Christina Martin, a Dole campaign spokeswoman. She said that marijuana use among young people has nearly doubled since Clinton took office and that abuse of virtually all other drugs has risen among teenagers over the last three years.

“There’s certainly not an American out there who doesn’t agree that our kids should be in school, but this is hardly the aggressive action needed to protect our kids from the ravages of drugs.”

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley denied that Clinton’s recent school proposals are election-year gimmicks, saying: “In education, initiatives matter.”

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However, he acknowledged that school crime and truancy are not new problems and explained the timing by saying that schools would reopen in September.

Clinton’s appearance before the teachers union was preceded by a large-screen presentation of a campaign video highlighting his record on education issues.

The federal anti-truancy manual describes hooky as “a powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behavior” and cites figures which suggest that kids cutting classes are responsible for high rates of daytime burglaries and vandalism.

The booklet says that local anti-truancy programs should contain these elements:

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* Parental involvement in truancy prevention programs.

* Stiff penalties for students who cut school, such as lower grades, loss of driving privileges and daytime curfews.

* Incentives for parents to monitor their children’s school attendance and penalties, such as loss of welfare benefits, for those whose children miss school without excuse.

* School counseling programs for troubled or drug-using students.

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* Local police action, including neighborhood sweeps where truancy is common and establishment of temporary detention centers.

It cites a rigorous anti-truancy program in Milwaukee, where on an average day there are 4,000 students absent without excuses. Under the plan, attendance is taken in every class period, police pick up truants and parents are called when their children are absent from school.

According to a survey taken several months after the program began, 73% of truant students returned to school the next day and 64% were still in school 30 days later. Daytime burglaries also dropped by 33%, the study reports.


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