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October 24, 2014

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Education:

For truancy officers, a high-stakes hide-and-seek game

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Steve Marcus

Clark County School Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, left, looks on as senior attendance officer Pam Gunter and attendance officer Javier Morales leave a note at a student’s home Wednesday, September 18, 2013. This Friday (Sept. 20) is “Count Day,” the day when attendance for the Clark County School District is measured to dole out per-pupil funding for schools.

CCSD Count Day

Clark County School Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, left, attendance officer Javier Morales, senior attendance officer Pam Gunter and Rancho High School principal James Kuzma look for a Rancho High School student at an apartment complex Wednesday, September 18, 2013. They later found out at the apartment office that the family had moved. Launch slideshow »

Pam Gunter and Javier Morales approach a beige two-story house at the end of a cul-de-sac near Hartke Park in North Las Vegas.

They knock. The rat-tat tat-tat-tat on a recent Wednesday morning breaks the desert silence.

“Hi, Clark County School District attendance,” Gunter shouts. “We’re looking for Angel.”

No one answers.

The truancy officers peer into the darkened windows, looking for signs of life stirring inside.

Nothing.

Gunter, 58, and Morales, 41, slide a note between the door and the door frame.

Angel, please register in school. You are so close! You can do this! We can help!

The Rancho High School boy failed to show for the start of his senior year. Although he passed all of his proficiency exams, Angel is six credits behind to graduate.

Angel is one of an estimated 9,952 Clark County students at risk of dropping out of the nation’s fifth-largest school system. In June, Education Week named Clark County the nation’s third biggest “drop-out epicenter.”

The school attendance officers, flanked by Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky and Rancho Principal John Kuzma, are on a mission to save as many students like Angel as they can.

“This is what we do,” Gunter says as the group returns to her minivan. “We rescue children. You can’t save everybody, but you can sure try.”

Consequences for habitual truancy

  • Habitual truants, those who have been truant three or more times a year, will be cited by a school police officer and their parents could face a misdemeanor charge.
  • Courts could order families to pay a fine of up to $200 for each student declared to be a "habitual truant." Truant children may be mandated to perform between eight and 16 hours of community service.
  • Older students with driving privileges also could have their licenses suspended from a month to a year.

•••

State law mandates that children between the ages of 7 and 18 be enrolled in school. But all too often, students fail to show for classes.

Most of the time, it’s because families move and neglect to tell the district. Other times, children play hooky from school to party or roam the local shopping malls.

But in a growing number of cases, students are failing to show up because they are dropping out, discouraged or overwhelmed by their school or home life. Amid one of the worst recessions in American history, some pupils have been forced to leave school to support their families.

Although attendance officers work year-round to find truant students and dropouts, they work especially hard before “Count Day” to locate students.

That’s because per-pupil funding for schools depends on the number of student enrolled on “Count Day” — this year, it’s today.

Even if school enrollment continues to rise, as it did last year, schools only receive funding based on the number of students counted on “Count Day.”

“That’s why this is so important,” Skorkowsky said. “This (determines) how much funding we get.”

•••

The new superintendent plans to continue the district’s popular “Reclaim Your Future” initiative, now three years old.

The outreach program brings hundreds of volunteers to roam Las Vegas, knocking on doors, talking with parents and encouraging dropouts to return to school.

It's work the district’s 20 attendance officers do every day during the 180-day school year.

Armed with nothing more than a black uniform, badge, radio and comfortable sneakers, the truancy officers represent the district’s first line of defense in addressing the district’s dropout crisis.

Riding around the valley in white Ford minivans, attendance officers track truant students, sometimes chasing them down if necessary to bring them back to school. Officers have learned to lock their doors, because truant students have tried to escape at stoplights.

Truancy officers know where students hang out: in shopping malls and parks. They break up house parties and bring hundreds of truant teens off Mount Charleston on senior ditch day.

Gunter, who graduated in 1973 from Western High School, became a school attendance officer after a truancy officer caught her cutting class on senior ditch day.

That experience put Gunter on the straight and narrow, she said. For the rest of the school year, Gunter says she went to class and got straight A’s.

“That’s why I do the job I do now,” Gunter says, smiling. “Attendance officers always win. We will find you.”

Attendance officer staffing levels

State law requires school districts to have one attendance officer per 10,000 students.

However, because of budget cuts, the Clark County School District has one officer per 18,273 students — nearly double the state-mandated officer-to-student ratio.

•••

Gunter and Morales pull up to their next destination, a one-story house several blocks away.

Skorkowsky knocks at the door.

“Hello, anyone home?” the superintendent asks. “This is the Clark County School District. We’re trying to look for Daniel. Hello?”

Kuzma notices some blinds in the window stir. Skorkowsky peers in, but it’s too dark to see anything.

Morales looks over at an open trash can nearby. It’s full.

“Yeah, someone’s still here,” he says.

The group waits around for a minute, and then affixes another notice to the gate.

It’s common for families to shy away from attendance officers, Morales says later.

In these neighborhoods, there is a lot of fear surrounding authority figures knocking on doors. They could be law enforcement serving a warrant, immigration officials looking to take someone away, a constable serving an eviction notice or a Department of Family and Child Services official checking in.

Attendance officers have to be careful. Several years ago, a truancy officer was shot at while conducting a home visit.

The bullet missed, barely.

•••

Attendance officers do more than just find truant children.

Attendance officers often fill the role of counselor or mentor, helping students realize the error of their ways and showing them alternatives, such as virtual high school, adult education and the GED.

“Some kids just need that extra little push, to see that someone cares,” Morales said. “We’re here for the kids. We tell them, ‘You need an education.’”

Truant officers live and breathe schools' legal doctrine “en loco parentis,” Latin for “in the place of a parent.”

Before school starts, attendance officers patrol school bus stops, looking after unattended children. After school ends, officers transport children whose parents failed to pick them up on time to a local Boys and Girls Club.

Schools also have called on truant officers to bring low-income parents to campus to register their children and attend parent-teacher conferences. Officers have shuttled sick children home from school if their parents lack transportation.

In some cases, their truancy vans become quasi-ambulances.

Schools have dispatched attendance officers home to pick up a stranded parent, bring them to campus to check out an injured child and then rush the entire family to the emergency room to patch up a student’s broken arm or leg.

“A lot of people in the community don’t know the extent of what we do,” Gunter said.

•••

During the course of their work, attendance officers sometimes find deplorable conditions in students’ homes: lack of basic necessities like running water or electricity; empty refrigerators, closets and bedrooms; multiple families packed into tiny apartments to save on rent.

When Morales first started as an attendance officer 24 years ago, such scenes used to haunt him in his sleep. They still do.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, man,’” the father of two young children said. “It’s hard.”

In the most extreme situations, attendance officers are compelled to help.

Last year, a truancy officer found a single mother — undocumented and unemployed — living in a small apartment with her two children — a middle-schooler and an elementary-schooler. Their apartment had no furniture, no running water or electricity.

Gunter pooled some money, from family, friends and co-workers, and purchased furniture, clothes and groceries for the family. They also brought household items — dishes, cups, bedsheets and a blow dryer.

“We’re the ones that see the destitution,” Gunter said. “We try to do everything we can to keep them in school, but also feed them, clothe them.”

As Gunter drives off to the next destination, a fourplex townhouse several miles away, she passes Bracken Elementary School, 1200 N. 27th St.

While he was an assistant principal there, Skorkowsky escorted a group of about two dozen Bracken students across the street to a public housing project several times a week. Today, it’s the site of a senior apartment complex, but back then, it was known as the “Third World,” Morales said.

Skorkowsky walked the students home because they were afraid of getting jumped, he said.

For Skorkowsky, every trip into the community is a learning opportunity. There’s so much principals, teachers and staff don’t realize about a student’s home life, just interacting with them in school, he said.

“Where are these students and why are they not in school?” Skorkowsky asks, looking down the list of children missing from school. “That’s what our attendance officers try to find out.”

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