Police: Truancy roundup results in 99 arrests so far

Authorities this week conducted one of the largest truancy roundup in Baton Rouge’s history, serving misdemeanor summonses to nearly 100 parents whose children have recorded excessive unexcused absences this semester in the East Baton Rouge Parish school system.

“It’s absolutely the largest one ever done in the parish,” said Roxson Welch, director of the Family and Youth Service Center, also known as the truancy center.

Authorities with the Baton Rouge Police Department, the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office and the City Constable’s Office served the summonses of improper supervision of a minor Tuesday and Wednesday while arresting some violators who also happened to have outstanding warrants on unrelated counts, said Sgt. Mary Ann Godawa, a police spokeswoman.

In all, authorities made 99 arrests, and at least 49 cases remain open, which could lead to additional arrests, Godawa said.

In May, local law enforcement agents arrested at least eight women and booked them into East Baton Rouge Parish Prison on counts of improper supervision of a minor. But this week’s roundup was much more expansive.

Ever since the opening of the truancy center in the fall of 2012, parish and city leaders have ramped up the effort to provide assistance to chronically absent school children, noting the connection between high absenteeism, juvenile crime and high dropout rates.

According to data provided by the truancy center, about a quarter of the center’s cases — 231 — have come from students in the 70805 ZIP code, a notoriously crime-ridden area in north Baton Rouge that also houses about a sixth of the parish’s juvenile offenders.

By far the second-highest number of cases — 140 — have come from the 70802 ZIP code, which along with 70805 is the target of the Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project, or BRAVE, a federally grant-funded program aimed at dramatically curbing gang violence among young people. About 40 percent of the juvenile crime in the parish is committed by young people from the 70805, 70802 or 70807 ZIP codes, according to the data.

“It’s really important that we step in before it’s too late,” Welch said.

This week’s truancy roundup targeted the parents of students who missed at least 10 unexcused days of school this semester, or only five days if the student had a history of truancy. But some students may have missed between 20 and 40 days, Welch said.

“They’ve missed so much information that it is very difficult to get them re-engaged,” Welch said. “Ultimately, it’s the parents’ responsibility.”

The school system reaches out to the parents of students with high absentee rates a handful of times before they collaborate with law enforcement to cite the parent. Parents are supposed to receive a phone call if their student misses one day unexcused, followed by a letter when the absent days total five, according to the school system’s truancy protocol.

Parents or guardians are responsible for making sure children between the ages of 7 and 18 either go to school or receive some type of approved alternate education such as home school, according to state law.

East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney Hillar Moore III said keeping children in school is key to preventing them from turning to a life of crime as adults.

“We have, surely, a much bigger truancy problem than we want to have,” Moore said, adding that he’s seen much improvement over the past three years. “We still have a long way to go.”

Moore said parish leaders are working to set up a truancy court based on a similar program in Alameda County, California, which covers Oakland and Berkeley.

Welch said the center offers free services ranging from counseling and tutoring to psychological evaluation and GED courses in an effort to keep absent-prone students in the classroom.

“If we’re going to give a kid anything, give them a chance,” Welch said. “This is the best gift that we could ever give these children.”