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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

Reducing truancy rates would be big step in curbing community violence


The 77 community leaders — and that’s what they deserve to be called — who have spent about a year studying ways to curb violence in Tampa and Hillsborough County have concluded something that may surprise you. They insist violence is preventable.

In a 68-page report just released, members of the Violence Prevention Collaborative lay out their case with solid reasoning backed by hard data. They propose to attack the problem with methods that have worked in other cities. It will take buy-in from law enforcement, faith-based leaders and, of course, educators and parents.

Let’s be honest, that last sentence doesn’t spell out something earth-shaking. Ideally, parents provide a firm foundation for kids at home, and cops, preachers and teachers are there to guide and direct out in the real world.

I set that up to make this point: For many kids, that foundation doesn’t exist. The report shows how large a problem truancy is for high school and middle school students in all parts of the county. Truancy is defined by more than 30 unexcused absences during a 180-day school year.

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Out of more than 50,000 middle school students in the county, school district data show 827 were considered truant in the past school year. In high school, that number increased to 2,313 students out of 61,118. That’s more than 3,000 kids who were supposed to be in school but weren’t.

If they’re not in class, they don’t learn. If they don’t learn, chances increase greatly that they’ll drop out. If they drop out, in a best-case scenario, they’ll be working menial jobs.

Or they will turn to crime.

You want to take the chance that one of those 3,000 under- educated kids won’t show up at your patio door with a baseball bat one night?

“It’s one thing to talk about skipping school. It’s another to see the data,” said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, an architect of the project. “You know what’s in there in the report, but when you open it up it’s like a fire hydrant. Each item by itself is a risk factor that contributes to community violence.”

Poverty, drugs, gangs, shoddy home life and tough neighborhoods are some of those contributors. A survey of 2,700 students (1,664 responded) cited gunshots, trash, loitering and graffiti in public areas. A frightening 30 percent of students said they don’t believe people in their neighborhood can be trusted.

But let’s pull at the truancy thread a little more. Researchers in this project found 98 percent of those same students said they feel like they belong at their schools. That’s good.

What’s not good is that 75 percent of responders said they had skipped at least one day of classes because they didn’t feel safe.

Now, how are people who grow up in an atmosphere of drugs, gangs, violence and fear supposed to become functioning adults? Some of them will, of course, and I tip my hat to them in advance.

As the truancy problem indicates, many of them won’t.

It would be nice to tie a bow on this column with a simple solution we can agree with. It also would be a fool’s errand. This situation has been years in the making and won’t be solved overnight. One trip to the front office of a public high school will show you what I mean. Sure, a lot of kids are disrespectful to workers and administrators, but look at their role models. Rude, crude and boorish adults screaming at school workers trying to help them happens nearly every day.

Kids don’t see respect, so they don’t give respect.

Kids don’t see education valued at home, so they skip school.

Kids eventually grow up and eventually become the adult standing and screaming at the front desk, or worse.

The report is just the first phase of a five-year effort to reduce violence, and Beckner said all they’ve done is identify the problem. They aren’t close to any concrete solutions, but, as I said up front, they are guided by the steadfast belief that violence is preventable.

I’d like to believe them.

We all want to believe them, mostly because the alternative is unacceptable.

It starts with parents who insist their children go to school and show respect by following the rules. Education can help people overcome lots of things. It can change a city.

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