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AWOL No More : Long Beach Is Rounding Up, Returning Truants to School

April 16, 1989|ROXANA KOPETMAN | Times Staff Writer

The teen-ager was fast asleep when Long Beach Officers Jack Pletka and Larry Laingor walked into his bedroom and shook him. The boy's mother stood nearby, but that morning she wasn't giving the orders.

"Get dressed," Laingor said as the surprised youth gazed up at the uniformed officer. "You're going to school."

Pletka and Laingor don't usually pay house calls in their search for students skipping school. Most days, they and 10 fellow officers cruise around schools and through alleys, stopping at burger joints, the beach and other teen-age hot spots.

But in the case of the sleeping teen-ager, they responded to pleas from the boy's frustrated mother. "She was at her wit's end," Laingor recalled. "They lived by Belmont Shore and he was just taking his surfboard and going out."

Truancy is taken seriously in Long Beach, where city police officers such as Pletka team up with school district attendance control officers such as Laingor. Local officials tout the 44-year-old anti-truancy program as the oldest of its kind in the state and say it is unique because it combines police and school district officers in patrol cars.

Sent on Weekly Sweeps

In recent months, police have cracked down on truancy by sending most of the department's juvenile division, about 30 officers, on three-hour weekly sweeps. Police Chief Lawrence Binkley started the sweeps because he believes the technique helps lower daytime crime.

Between September, 1987, and February, 1988, police picked up 1,174 youngsters who belonged in schools in Long Beach or a nearby city. But since the sweeps began last September the number has more than quadrupled to 5,006 truants. The district has 67,107 students, of which approximately 58,800 are in Long Beach.

Figures Contradictory

Although the dramatic increase in the number of students picked up could indicate a serious problem, the district traditionally has had a low rate of unexcused absences, which include truancy. Last year, 2.3% of the district's high school students and 3.3% of the junior high students were absent without an excuse, according to Lewis Prilliman, the district's director of research.

But school board member Jerry Shultz said that the high numbers from the recent sweeps indicate many more students are cutting class and getting away with it. That not only means the students lose a chance to get an education, but the district loses money that the state allocates based on enrollment. During the 1987-88 school year, the district lost about $4.1 million because of unexcused absences, which includes truants and children on vacation or religious holidays, according to Prilliman.

"The kids are out there but we're not picking them up," Shultz said.

Shultz said he plans to urge the board to set up a district police department. School police would carry weapons, be empowered to make arrests and have the authority to stop and search students. Shultz also is working with school administrators on a plan that would force students who are suspended to attend a special education program, Project Stars. Rather than sitting at home, they will be in a strict classroom-type setting, he said.

"The key," Shultz said, "is discipline."

The joint city-school district patrol teams "do an excellent job--when they have time to do it," said Shultz, who works as a Los Angeles County deputy sheriff. "But what I've been hearing from the grapevine is that they spend most of their time on (police) calls" instead of looking for truants, Shultz said.

According to Police Sgt. Chris Marino, the six teams of police and school officers do not typically respond to service calls. But "if there was a robbery nearby or if they got a call for backup, they're policemen and they'll have to answer that," Marino said.

But usually, Marino said, "the only calls they spend their time on are related to schools." Truancy is a big part of that job. They also respond to calls about child abuse and other matters related to youngsters, he added.

Most Have Own Police

Most of the state's largest school districts have their own police, Shultz said. Long Beach Unified School District is the third largest in California. The local school district once maintained a force of officers who, when on duty, had the same authority as police. Five years ago, the Legislature ordered districts to choose between their own security department or police department, according to Carl A. Cohn, attendance service office director. The Long Beach district opted for security officers.

Marino said Long Beach police do not object to Shultz's plan. "Whatever they want to do is fine with us," Marino said.

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