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Many parents just don't know about truancy laws, school officials and judges say.

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Monday, August 23, 1999
Working to help keep kids in school
State laws and truancy center give hope to those helping kids

By Novelda Sommers

Truant officer Gary Ganschow rumbles into driveways on his three-wheel custom motorcycle, court summons in hand.
Ganschow takes students who skip school, and sometimes their parents, to court.
"He's like their worst nightmare over in the King district," said Mariah Boone, director of the Truancy Reduction Impact Program, which serves juveniles who violate the city's daytime curfew.
Ganschow, Boone and local juvenile authorities say they hope to see a decrease in truancy with the opening of a new 24-hour curfew center next month and with new state truancy laws.
Two new laws aim to combat truancy among 16- to 18-year-old students. One law gives school districts the option of expelling 18-year-olds if they accrue more than five unexcused absences. And starting Sept. 1, judges may order 16-year-olds accused of skipping school to take the high school equivalency exam.
"I think what the Legislature is saying is they're serious about kids going to school," said Art Delgado, CCISD director of administrative and student services. "If they are not going to school, following the rules, and they are being disruptive, they shouldn't be there."
Sanctions against students who miss school aren't meant to punish, but to get students back in school and keep them there, he said. A special committee this fall is expected to work on ways to improve attendance.
Many parents just don't know about truancy laws, school officials and judges say.
Justice of the Peace Larry Cox said parents often seem surprised when they appear in his court and learn that they could be fined thousands of dollars or jailed because they didn't make their children attend school.
Cox said he saw about 600 truancy cases in his courtroom last year, compared with about 50 cases when he first took office five years ago. He attributes the increase to more diligent enforcement by police, constables' deputies and school truancy officers.
Penalties can range from fines up to $500 for each unexcused absence, to court orders for parents to attend school with their children for a day or two, Cox said.
State law says it's a crime if any child age six to 18 misses three days or parts of days within four weeks without an excuse or if they have 10 unexcused absences within six months.
Straight talk
Ganschow, a Vietnam veteran with a pierced ear and a ponytail, checks school attendance reports at 12 Corpus Christi Independent School District schools and serves court summons to select students, and sometimes parents.
Last week, he spoke to a classroom of King students whose teacher said he had noticed too many absences in the first week of school.
"You may say, 'What can you do to me, because I'm a kid,' '' he said.
Lots of things. A judge can assess a 6 p.m. curfew. Or the judge could suspend the offender's driver's license.
On the second offense, Ganschow told them, "you're going to jail."
"You're going to be put in the police car and taken to the juvenile center where you will be held for violating a court order," he tells them. Those who are 17 or older can be taken to the county jail.
Hope for center
Whom he takes to court depends on parents' and students' willingness to change their behavior, Ganschow later said.
"We don't file on all of them. It's a tool that we can use," he said.
Last year, CCISD filed 938 complaints against students and parents. CCISD employs five truant officers whose coverage areas center around the high schools and their feeder schools.
Boone said she hopes a planned 24-hour curfew center, funded with the Crime Control District tax, will drive down truancy numbers down.
Set to open on Sept. 13, the center will offer counseling to students and their parents. Staff at the center will call offenders' schools to learn their grades and absentee rates, she said. The counselors will follow up with the families in the weeks after the first session.
Parents, she said, can help keep their kids in school by knowing school staff and calling to check if they suspect there is a problem.
Counseling often needed
Often, truancy is a symptom of a larger problem in the offender's family, said Penny Grochow, assistant chief probation officer for the Nueces County Juvenile Department.
Counselors who work with truants and runaways at the center often learn of sexual abuse, drug use and neglect in truants' homes, she said.
The department has seen the number of truancies level off since 1993, when truancies peaked at 613 cases. Last year, the department handled 354 cases, and in 1997, it saw 316. Juvenile crime overall hit a five-year low last year, with 4,311 offenses.
Parents can call the department between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. for free counseling, Grochow said. Most who come in complain that they have difficulty getting their children to go to school.
"If they've called us at 8 a.m. and they can't get the kid out of bed for school, we tell them to get the kid in the car and come talk to us," she said.
Kids difficult to handle
In a recent counseling session, a defiant girl with close-cropped hair began to let down her guard with Priscilla Boyd-Apah, a juvenile probation caseworker.
She doesn't want to go to school because other kids make fun of her, she told Boyd-Apah.
"You need to straighten out your act today," Boyd-Apah said. "How are you going to support yourself if you're not educated?"
The session was arranged by the girl's mother, who was desperate for help and called the department.
"She's like the bad apple out of all of them," the mother said, telling the counselor that the 12-year-old has three younger siblings.
Boyd-Apah said she frequently counsels children whose parents say they can no longer control them. This girl will be taken on a tour of the juvenile boot camp to see where she could end up if she keeps offending, Boyd-Apah said.
But during the session, it became apparent, Boyd-Apah said, that the mother needs help, too.
The mother said she doesn't work, and lives on about $200 in monthly government aid. The girl's father, she said, is in prison.
A school counselor who called during the session said the children come to school dirty, Boyd-Apah said.
"They need to come clean and dressed nice for school or else kids will pick at them," Boyd-Apah told the mother, before making a follow-up appointment for the next week.
Justice of the Peace Henry Santana said that when he assesses punishment in truancy cases, he orders the families to get counseling. Some parents just don't know how to communicate with their children without fighting.
"Punishment is not the answer," he said. "They need a lot of counseling, a lot of help to put them on track again."

Staff writer Novelda Sommers can be reached at 886-3774 or by e-mail at

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