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If Truancy is the 'Gateway To Crime,' An Attempt to Nip Problems in the Bud


March 11, 2002
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If Truancy is the 'Gateway To Crime,' An Attempt to Nip Problems in the Bud

by Matt Sedensky, The New York Times

Anna Lazaro was hauled off by the police, searched and forced to sit in silence. Yet she had unexpected things to say about the truancy center in which she had spent the morning.

"I like it here," said Anna, a sophomore at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in Castle Hill. "They give you lessons why you shouldn't cut and what to do."

The Bronx Truancy Prevention Center, a new program in the Parkchester neighborhood, seeks to help truants by identifying hurdles to their educational success.

Forget the romantic images of a carefree Tom Sawyer skipping school for adventures along the Mississippi with Huckleberry Finn. Overseen by James B. Comey, the United States attorney in Manhattan, the four-month-old program is part of a federal effort to eliminate crime among juveniles. Working with the Police Department, Board of Education and the Bronx Y.M.C.A., the center operates in the basement of the Church of the Revelation on White Plains Road. Posters with Bible passages and illustrations of Noah's Ark decorate the walls, and police officers often remind truants that they are in church.

Traditionally, the police simply pick up truants and ferry them to school. Lizette Ubides-Ruiz, the director of the new center, characterizes this practice as "bring the kids in the front door and they leave through the back." Her program, she said, has much more follow-up. "If you're going to change behavior," she explained, "you've really got to put a support system in place."

More than 700 truants age 16 and under - 58 percent boys, 42 percent girls - have been picked up since the center opened in November. Upon entry, students turn over their personal items and are searched for weapons and drugs. Board of Education officials then obtain the student's attendance record, and a parent or guardian is contacted. The students fill out questionnaires, which include an exercise for psychiatric evaluation, and receive counseling before their parents arrive or they are transported back to school.

If a guardian picks up the child, which happens one-third of the time, a staff member meets with the parent to determine if issues at home are contributing to the problem. If no parent shows up, a letter is sent home. If the student is taken to the center three times, a staff member visits the home to make an assessment.

"Truancy is the gateway to crime," said Mrs. Ubides-Ruiz in explaining the extensive follow-ups.

Mrs. Ubides-Ruiz, who admits she was once a truant herself, said the program was beginning to have an effect. "We've had kids walk themselves in, and we've had kids bring friends," she said. "They perceive that they're genuinely cared for."

A parent, Percy Hicks, who picked up his daughter, Saundra, from the center, agreed. "It's comforting to find my child in a safe setting with people who seemed concerned," he said.

While some young people, like Anna Lazaro, end up having good things to say about the center.

Others, like Mr. Hicks's 16-year-old daughter, are not impressed. "I see no point in it," she said.





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