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Tracking Truants : Education: Prosecutor Brenda English won't take any guff in her fight to halt hard-core truancy and pull kids off the road to prison. The strategy: Not-so-subtly put the heat on the parents. It's working.

August 16, 1993|BETTIJANE LEVINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

If not for a fluke of timing, you might have met Debra Johnson on the nightly news, another mother grieving for a child gone wrong.

Johnson is a single mother of three who until recently lived in South-Central Los Angeles--and whose son, Andre Holloway, 13, tended toward gang buddies and refused to go to school.

Then the threat arrived in the mail. On official stationery of the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

It read, in part: " . . . school attendance is mandatory. You and your child's failure to comply may result in court action against you. You and your child are requested to appear at a meeting. . . ." It was signed: Brenda English, Deputy District Attorney.

"Court action? District attorney? Don't I have troubles enough already?" Johnson thought. She was angry and scared.

"Of course she was," says English. "That's exactly the reaction we want. It means we got her attention."

Since January, English has administered a new program designed to catch truant kids before they become criminals.

"That's what happens to truants," English says. "Statistics show 85% of all daytime crime is committed by school kids. Statistics also show truancy is the single most common factor in the profiles of those who become adult criminals. It's even more common than dysfunctional families."

And because about 300,000 (out of 1.6 million) students are truant from public schools every day in Los Angeles County, English adds, the crime forecast is increasingly bleak.

So the head of the district attorney's juvenile division, Tom Higgins, devised a plan to get parents' attention and intercept kids before they become statistics. His plan is unusual because it uses deputy district attorneys outside the courtroom to prevent crime, rather than inside to prosecute it.

Higgins, a father of eight, says he came up with the project--which formally began in January--after analyzing county records of "the kids who are the robbers, the rapists, the drive-by shooters. Virtually every one of them has had a failed educational experience."

So, he reasoned, "if we get the 10-year-old back in school and functioning, he won't become the 16-year-old drive-by shooter." After a 15-month tryout at Parmelee Elementary School in South-Central, Higgins got a grant from the state's Office of Criminal Justice Planning.

He then assigned three of his deputies to different areas--Pasadena, Long Beach and South-Central--putting each in charge of three schools. Their mission: to eliminate truancy.

*

It is more than a full-time job, English says.

But the plan seems to be working. Of 132 truant students in the Parmelee pilot, attendance of all but one changed dramatically during the first semester; that student straightened out the next semester, English says, thereby avoiding prosecution.

Even the formerly fearful Johnson believes she was lucky her son's problems erupted just when the plan went into action. And even luckier that Andre's school--Horace Mann Junior High--was in the project. And luckiest, perhaps, that someone like Brenda English was at the helm.

"I want to thank her, thank the principal, thank the tutor, thank the Lord for what happened to us," Johnson says. "It has put our lives on a whole different track. I believe if we'd had this kind of help before, he never would have become a problem."

Others have saluted the program too. It was a semifinalist for the Ford Foundation's 1993 Innovations in Government Award and won the 1993 Achievement Award from the National Assn. of Counties for the abolition of chronic truancy.

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Though you can't tell by looking at her, English is one emotionally exhausted woman.

After eight months on this assignment she remains energetic, enthusiastic--and a verbal black belt.

As a divorced mother of one and a former teacher who earned her law degree from Southwestern University at night, she can leap large obstacles to achieve a goal.

But it is hard to hear English's backlog of truancy tales and believe she has any enthusiasm left for this seemingly overwhelming battle.

"That's ridiculous," she snaps. "I've just begun this work and we're already turning things around. It's absolutely exciting." Then she returns to her tale of a father so intent on helping his gang-involved, truant son that the father sat in all the son's classes while the son stayed home with his friends.

"I had ordered the father to come to school with his son, to make sure the child attended every class. The son refused to go. But the father, to keep his commitment, sat through every class. He'd call me and say, 'I am trying as hard as I can.' Eventually, the child was so moved by his father's dedication that he started attending school. He's been going ever since."

The beauty of Higgins' plan, English says, is that parents and kids know the district attorney's office can prosecute, can potentially put them in jail. (So far, there have been no prosecutions.)

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