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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From the Front : Police Net 74 Students in Truancy Sweep


They hit all the regular hangouts: Taco Bell, the local bowling alley, the streets behind the high school.

In a morning's work, police round up 74 students--a few kids here, another dozen there, a couple more someplace else. Then they load them into patrol cars and take them back to school.

The problem? Truancy.

It's not new. Lots of kids have done it. So what's the big deal?

Usually, police say, children ditch classes to party with friends during the day, while their parents are working. But increasingly, residents and business owners have been reporting AWOL students vandalizing nearby neighborhoods during school hours, stealing from local businesses and spraying graffiti.

"We are not here to baby-sit your kids," Officer Ken Knox sternly told the principal of Taft High School after he brought in 31 students last week.

Knox, a senior lead officer for the area around Taft, said that typically after a truancy sweep, crime plunges in the area around Winnetka Avenue and Ventura Boulevard, where the high school is located. That also means that he receives fewer calls from residents afraid of loitering teen-agers or from business owners complaining about shoplifting.

Last week's truant sweep netted students from Taft, Reseda, Birmingham, Granada Hills, Canoga and Grant high schools.

And the schools were not always happy to be getting their reluctant students back.

"Just what we needed, a major interruption," said a frustrated Jeff Halpern, the Reseda High School dean of students, as the truant students were shuffled in and out of his office for permits to get into class late.

"We know there is a need for this, but we wish there was another way."

"The one thing I don't like is the kids' flippant attitude when they are brought in," Halpern said. "There is no such thing as respect anymore."

Halpern said school officials are often unsuccessful in attempts to contact parents, or fail to get a response from them. Treatment for repeat offenders is usually school cleanup duty or detention. "We tend to see the same kids again and again," he said.

The police have a more determined attitude. The West Valley Division has made a commitment to reach the parents of the students its officers pick up, logging the names in a truancy book to keep track of them. Those students found to be habitual truants are arrested. Serious offenders can be made wards of the court.

In the latest sweep, police got the usual stories--like the boy who told officers that he was simply walking home from Taft to use the bathroom because the restrooms at school "were too dirty."

And then there's pure denial.

"We weren't ditching," said a 16-year-old Woodland Hills girl. "We were just walking to the car to get something and they stopped us."

"Now my parents are never going to trust me," said a 16-year-old Taft junior. "They probably won't let me bring the car to school anymore."

At the Corbin Bowl, a popular spot on Fridays with students getting an early start on the weekend, "There have been times when about 30 of them came in and bowled and then just left without paying," said Shane Ward, who works the front desk at the newly reopened Tarzana bowling alley.

"Now everyone prepays."

But police say the amusements aren't always so innocent.

Firefighters had to extinguish a burning tree believed to have been set afire by two boys playing hooky in Reseda last month. In another incident, neighbors complained of a group of teen-agers smoking marijuana on their lawn. And for the past few months, supermarket managers have complained of increased shoplifting.

"The kids are drifting off into neighborhoods, and sometimes they break into cars and steal the stereos. Others go into abandoned houses and have parties," Knox said.

The area around Taft High School has the highest car-theft rate in the West Valley Division, said Knox, "and quite a bit is attributed to the kids."

"We want to make the message clear to the principal that he has to control his kids," said Knox.

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