Can Big Brother Stop Truancy in Schools?

Photo: Tracking Truants With a GPS Monitoring Device: Students with a History of Truancy Are Being Transformed By a Novel Program in TexasCourtesy Attendance Improvement Management
Attendance Improvement Management, or AIM, is a Texas-based company that designed a big brother program to monitor students with a history of truancy.

Jose Troncoso was a chronic truant, missing over a month of school by his own estimate until school officials and a county judge gave Troncoso a heart to heart conversation, and a GPS tracking device.

For the 15 year-old Troncoso, attending class at Woodlake Hills Middle School in Texas was an afterthought, an annoyance that the teen fought his mother on daily.

"It wasn't important to me," Troncoso told ABC News. "I wasn't aware of the value of school, and I didn't want to go."

His mother Debbie Troncoso said her son was headed down the wrong path, and the prospect of her son graduating high school was grim.

VIDEO: Texas program uses GPS devices to prevent students from skipping school.Play

"He didn't want to go at all, and it got him in trouble," Debbie told ABC News.

Troncoso's attitude toward attending school brought him to the cusp of being sent to juvenile detention for truancy, according to Bexer County Judge Roger Lopez. Truancy is just the beginning for some according to Lopez, the start of a life of crime and expense to society that Lopez has seen time and time again. Troncoso was headed in that direction, he said, before he was given a second chance.

"They sent me to court, and Judge Lopez told me I had to take the AIM program. I didn't even know what that was," Troncoso said.

He was about to become a part of a five-year-old program, one not without its share of controversy but also one that has been gaining steam throughout Texas and the nation as the results seem overwhelmingly positive.

Attendance Improvement Management, or AIM, is a Texas-based company that designed a big brother program both technologically and socially. Students with a history of truancy, many at the final straw before being sent out of school and into juvenile detention, are given a GPS monitoring device the size of a smart phone and a counselor with the task of teaching the teens the value of attending school, while trying to give them the confidence and discipline to try to graduate with at least a high school diploma.

"My personal philosophy is that kids don't belong in a courtroom," Lopez said.

The truancy program began in Bexer County roughly six months ago Lopez said, and when he took office this year he decided to stick with it. Lopez, who holds truancy court twice a week, said students with over 10 unexcused absences are picked on a case-by-case basis if it's deemed they might do well in the program.

The AIM program has seen great success thus far throughout Dallas, where it started in 2005 by Doctor Paul Pottinger, and in San Antonio's year-old program, Lopez said. One key to that is the fact that it is more than just a monitoring program.

AIM Program Hopes Mentoring As Effective as GPS Monitoring

"Rather than just slap them with fines, this provides them with counseling services, to try and figure out what the problem is, why are they missing so much class?" Lopez said.

It's that mentoring, according to AIM's Brian Dooley, that helps keep a student in school long after the six weeks they are part of the program.

"Some programs, with just ankle monitors, those programs have limited success. As soon as the monitors come off, the students are right back to their old ways and that's pretty pointless," Dooley said. "What we do, 80 percent is coaching and mentoring."

The monitoring is still a vital part of the program, the students are given the device and have to punch in a code as soon as they arrive to school and check in with their counselors in the morning, lunchtime and at night to make sure they are staying on track. If the GPS detects the students are not where they are supposed to be at any given time, the students get a call from that counselor. Yet the type of monitoring device utilized by AIM, one that isn't physically attached to the student, was also a well thought out component to the program, Dooley said.

"The point behind that is when someone has a tracking device that's physically attached to them, they look in the mirror and see themselves as a criminal. Then they start behaving as a criminal," he said.

According to Dooley, a device the students are tasked with holding onto and taking care of gives them something they are responsible for, something they are constantly reminded of and have to do well with, which in turn will lead them to greater self confidence.

"We try to give them encouragement, and sometimes they need a pat on the back because they may not get that anywhere else," Dooley said.

Jose said he at first thought he'd be forced to wear a device and was against being part of the program almost solely based on that.

"I didn't want to wear it if it was an ankle monitor," he said. Jose added that when they gave him the device to hold onto and not wear, he wanted to show them he would take care of it, and they could trust him with it.

"We work with these kids to teach them about responsibility. It's a structured program and we hold them accountable," AIM CEO Travis Knox told ABC News.

Knox said the program has been successful across the board in Texas and is expanding to Kentucky and Philadelphia as a result.

"We're graduating 40 to 50 students in San Antonio alone that would not have graduated without this program," Knox said. "We give these kids hope."

Truancy and students dropping out of school is a growing epidemic across the country, Knox said, and stopping it not only gives students more opportunities in life, but at least in Texas it helps the school districts financially.

"Schools lose money based on daily attendance," Knox said.

Brian Woods, deputy superintendant for administration in San Antonio's Northside Independent School District, can attest to that. According to Woods, every day a student is in attendance that school receives funding for that student that could equal thousands of dollars each year.

Woods said they've been using the program for about 10 months so far, with roughly 50 students enrolled at a time and he believes the costs will be more than offset in the long run.

"We're still in the infancy of developing this, but our initial reports are quite favorable," he said.

Woods agreed that they key component in the program is the mentoring aspect, and the fact that it aims to intervene before a student's truancy leaves him unable to attend school any longer.

"The tracking is just a message, obvious and subliminal. The mentoring is what ultimately has the power to change a student's behavior in the long term. So far it's gone well, we've seen a marked rise in average daily attendance for those who are court ordered into the program," Woods said.

Yet this isn't just an issue of school funding. According to Judge Lopez, keeping kids in school and away from dropping out has a huge impact on their future down the road.

"Seventy percent of folks in our jail system have not graduated high school, and 90 percent of all our inmates begin their court appearances in truancy court," Lopez said. "This is an opportunity to reach these kids before it begins."

Those statics aren't just seen in Texas, according to the National Center for School Engagement. In Florida, the 5,000 of the state's most serious juvenile offenders were analyzed in 1991 and 1993 and excessive truancy was one of three traits they had most in common. In North Miami Beach, when a truancy center was opened to pick up school aged youth during school hours vehicle burglaries decreased by 22 percent.

Of 85 juveniles convicted of murder in New York State between 1978 and 1986, over 57 percent had a history of truancy, and nationwide data collected from 28 communities between 1980 and 2000 showed truant 8th graders were 4.5 times more likely than regular school attenders to smoke marijuana.

According to the center, truancy is a national epidemic that more often than not leads to students dropping out of high school. In 1997 41 percent of prison inmates had not graduated high school, and the average dropout costs more than $200,000 in criminal justice costs in their lifetime, the Center reports. The 2000 census showed that high school dropouts had a 52 percent employment rate compared with 71 percent for high school graduates.

"We get these kids back in school, and back on track," Knox said.

According to Knox, in the six cities and 26 schools the program was implemented in for the spring of 2009, the AIM program achieved a 98 percent attendance rate with participating students, and one month following the program students were maintaining a 97 percent attendance rate.

The program hasn't been without controversy. According to Lopez some parents were against the idea of their child being monitored with a GPS device in the beginning; however he said the majority have since embraced the program.

The Texas chapter of the ACLU isn't totally sold on the program yet because of the use of the GPS device.

"We have concerns about it perhaps being used by people who don't have the best interest of the children in mind," Dotty Griffith, from the ACLU's Texas branch said. "What's stopping someone from hacking in to see where the kids are when they aren't in school? We're always concerned about privacy and safeguards."

Dooley said AIM is constantly improving and updating their system as they expand and grow and they always have the student's privacy and best interests in mind.

"As soon as we explain the program to these families and they know exactly what this is about, there is almost a sigh of relief," he said.

Debbie Troncoso said she's relieved, after Jose completed his six-week course last month his attendance has remained steady and his commitment to school has transformed.

"He actually likes to go to school now, we have no problem with him going to school at all," she said.

"I'm proud of him, he's going the right way now, instead of the wrong way," Debbie said.

For Jose, the right way may now bring him to receive his high school diploma, something the 15-year old said he never planned on getting before.

"This has made a huge difference in my life," Jose said. "The program opened up my eyes, and showed me what school is all about."