It's 6:30 a.m. and Jacksonville, Fla., police are on a citywide truancy roundup. But they are not going after students. They are arresting parents who fail to keep their children in school.
"We're serious about this," said George Marshall, an investigator with the State's Attorney's office in Jacksonville. "This whole process is to get the attention of the parents so they can work harder to keep those kids in school regularly. If they are not there, they can't learn."
Few cities combat truancy as aggressively as Jacksonville. If a child has more than five unexcused absences in a calendar month or 15 unexcused absences in a 90-day period, parents can be arrested, charged with a misdemeanor and face up to 60 days in jail.
It is the last resort in a multifaceted, anti-truancy campaign that can also include family counseling, home visits and daily police sweeps to pick up students who are skipping school.
But it is the arrests that have had the biggest impact, in part because public embarrassment is part of the plan. Cameras are routinely invited along for the arrests to help make the point.
"I think shame should be part of the equation. These people are not performing their most important function, taking care of their children," said State's Attorney Harry Shorstein of the 4th Judicial Circuit of Florida.
In the Classrooms Means Out of Courtrooms
Shorstein says he goes after parents to make sure their children stay out of his courtrooms. "Almost all of the cases of residential burglaries and in many cases vehicle thefts, were committed by children who should have been in school."
So Jacksonville police are always on the prowl for students skipping school, checking parks, malls, beaches or anywhere young people are known to congregate. Once caught, students are dropped off at one of three truancy centers in the city where they face an army of counselors who are as tough as drill sergeants.
"Do you think you want to do time?" barked Gene Heath, the city's chief truancy officer, when a group of six high school students were brought in by police. One of the young men invited his five friends to hang out in his home while his mother was at work, and the noise attracted the attention of neighbors.
As in all cases, the counselors checked the students records and immediately contacted their parents. The students are held in custody until a parent or guardian comes to pick them up. Once she worked through her irritation over being called off her job, Angela Thomas said she was thankful the district was aggressively targeting students who play hooky.
"I'm a hard-working mother and I try to do right by my kids." said Thomas. "My eyes can't be everywhere."
'Truancy Is the Symptom of a Larger Problem'
Once truants are cited, their parents must sign contracts, explaining exactly how they plan to keep their children in school. Details are important. If the parents work odd hours, for instance, they must explain who will help usher the children off to school in the morning, or who will make sure they get to bed on time. "Truancy is the symptom of a larger problem, usually many problems," said Carrie Tullos, a truancy case manager who monitors families to make sure they stick to their plan. "You have to help families see the value of an education. Sometimes you have to work with the children to get them to value an education despite their parents. We stay on top of them. And they know that. Follow through is very important."
"We're not going to give up," Heath said. "I've never seen a gang banger who wasn't a truant. Either you deal with the problem now or you deal with it later and the city of Jacksonville, with this program, we choose to deal with the problem now instead of later."
If all else fails — the contract, the home visits, the special classes and counseling for habitual truants — the parents face arrest and possible jail time. Parents are charged with a first-degree misdemeanor for contributing to the delinquency of a minor and a second-degree offense for failing to require school attendance.
"The arrests are not our goal, said Shelly Grant, the director of youth offender programs in the State's Attorney's office. "They are a last resort, but the definitely get the public's attention. We've heard time and time again that attendance is never better than the day after we do one of these."
The message appears to be getting through to parents. School attendance is at a 10-year high. And since 1993, the number of juveniles arrested for assault is down 55 percent, down 68 percent for vehicle theft, and down 53 percent for residential burglary.
"I think the argument can be made that truancy may be the most important crime in our country because of the fact that it is such a great indicator of future criminal activity," Shorstein said. "Truancy may be the greatest contributor to crime we have."
The Jacksonville strategy appears to be catching on. In the last four years, more than a dozen school districts around the country have begun attacking truancy, by arresting parents.