The truancy sweeps are expected to start this month.
By PATRICIA MEADE
VINDICATOR CRIME REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN — Some kids who skip school occupy their days breaking into houses, selling drugs, stealing cars and shoplifting, police say.
To ensure school attendance and reduce criminal activity, a two-year $230,335 anti-gang initiative grant from the Ohio Office of Criminal Justice Services was awarded to the Youngstown Police Department, said Laura Brown, YPD project analyst.
The program will be evaluated by Youngstown State University and a portion of the grant will be set aside for nonpolice services, she said, adding that details are still being worked out with city schools and juvenile court.
The bulk of the grant, $189,000, will be used to pay police overtime for truancy sweeps during the school year and curfew enforcement over the summer months, police said. Compulsory school hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and the city’s curfew is 11 p.m.
The truancy sweeps are expected to start Jan. 17. Officers (six plus one supervisor) will work 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays.
The overtime is available to all officers who sign up but limited to 20 hours per month per officer. The cost per day will depend on an officers’ rank. The grant ends in October 2009.
“Nationwide, studies show that most daylight burglaries are committed by kids who should be in school,” said Lt. Robin Lees, commander of the Mahoning Valley Law Enforcement Task Force. “They also sell drugs and commit petty thefts.”
Lees said most people think burglaries take place at night, but break-ins generally occur during the day when the residents are at work.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, 57 percent of crimes committed by juveniles occur on school days.
The anti-gang initiative, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, focuses on reducing youth-gang crime by addressing the full range of personal, family and community factors that contribute to juvenile delinquency and gang activity. Risk factors include early drug use, antisocial behavior and lack of commitment to school.
Detective Sgt. Mike Lambert, head of the task force gang unit, said the sweeps will be citywide, with officers refocusing their efforts if they don’t come across any truants. Lambert, who provided crime data for the grant application, expects more kids will be found on the streets once the weather breaks.
The goal is to get the parents or guardians involved, find out what the problem is, and keep the students in school, Lambert said. Kids can progress from truancy to curfew violations to other crimes, including murder, he said.
Lambert said the word has been put out to block watches to let police know where kids are hanging out causing trouble, breaking into houses, selling drugs and so forth. Teenagers who break into houses sometimes come away with guns, he said.
“We want to break the cycle where kids get suspended for truancy — that’s what they want, to get suspended,” Lambert said. “We want them in school, not out causing trouble. What do you do at 17 with no diploma? If you don’t finish school, and have a criminal record, you’re lost.”
Ted Terlesky, schools security chief, said the anti-gang initiative is a collaborative effort that involves police, the school board and juvenile court. He said some kids who habitually skip school begin associating with known gang members, which exacerbates the city’s crime problem.
Lambert said police will partner with probation officers for the truancy sweeps. Many truant students, he said, are on probation to juvenile court.
It’s just common sense, Terlesky said, that children who remain in school can’t be out committing crimes. He said the city’s crime rate, including homicide toll, was a factor in obtaining the grant.
Police will be provided with student directories to help them identify the kids they round up, he said. The directories include addresses, dates of birth and mothers’ names, he said.
A secretary for Wendy Webb, city schools superintendent, referred questions to spokesman Mike McNair.
McNair said city schools’ enrollment is roughly 7,700 with an overall attendance of 93 percent, the state standard. At the time the grant application was written in 2006, attendance at five schools ranged from 82 percent to 90 percent, he said.
As kids playing hooky are rounded up, they’ll be taken to a central location, likely the police substation on Mahoning Avenue until another building can be found, Lambert said. The wayward students will stay put until their parent or guardian shows up.
Depending on the time of day students are caught on the streets, they may be returned to school after being given a juvenile court citation for violating compulsory school attendance, he said. If caught close to the end of the school day, they will be sent home.
“They should be in school the next day, or they will be cited again,” McNair said. “We want to send the message that we want them in school.”