October 5, 2008

Racine's Truancy Reduction Roots

By Jim Huycke, SAFE Haven

In recent years, Racine has made some significant progress in truancy reduction. In the 2000-'01 academic year, more than a third of Racine Unified School District (RUSD) students were habitually truant. By the 2006-'07 school year, that rate was down to only 8.5%.

Other Wisconsin communities have not done so well.

According to the “Best Practices Review, Truancy Reduction Efforts” by the State of Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau nearly half of Milwaukee Public Schools students are habitually absent from school. More than 9% of Wisconsin's students had at least five unexcused absences in one semester (the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction definition of “habitual truancy” in the 2006-'07 school year).

The roots of Racine’s success in reducing the numbers of truant students can be traced back to a collaborative effort known as the Aggressive Truancy Abatement Program (ATAP) that began before the turn of the millennium.

How ATAP started

On April Fool’s Day of 1998, some Racine Unified School District students were surprised to find that truancy no longer was being treated as a “joke”. Students on record as being truant, and those found outside of schools without permission were apprehended by Racine County Sheriffs deputies. Most of them were transported to SAFE Haven on large yellow school buses that day.

That was the start of the ATAP, a collaboration of the school system, law enforcement and human services, as represented by RUSD, the Racine County Sheriffs Department, and SAFE Haven.

Karen Albeck, Supervisor of Student Services at RUSD, wrote a grant application for Department of Justice funds administered by the State of Wisconsin Office of Justice Assistance. Because of jurisdictional, financial and municipal ordinance issues, the mandated law enforcement partner was limited to the Racine County Sheriffs Department. Bill McReynolds, the current Racine County Executive, was the Sheriff at that time.

SAFE Haven was the only nonprofit entity licensed by the State to temporarily house minors separately from their parents, so the shelter for homeless and abused children became the social service provider. Maurice Horton of the Gang/Crime Diversion Task Force, then operated by the City of Racine Police Department, was hired by SAFE Haven to coordinate the social service programming.

How it worked

Pam Galati, an RUSD staffer, used the District’s Skyward database to generate a list of habitually truant students. This list was periodically forwarded to Sheriffs deputies, who traveled to the students’ homes in an attempt to locate them. Students who appeared to be out of school without permission and observed on the streets were also stopped by the Sheriffs squads.

Deputies conducted a “terry stop” on all suspect youth. A pat down search would be performed as needed, sometimes resulting in the discovery of drugs, knives, and on at least one occasion, a gun. In such cases, the youth would be arrested, but the vast majority of apprehended students were transported to SAFE Haven for assessment.

Each truant youth arriving at SAFE Haven underwent an evaluation that, as needed, appraised family issues, assessed alcohol and other drug abuse, legal issues, and of course, attendance and performance at school.

SAFE Haven provided information, referral, and human services as needed. On occasion, youth who were homeless or who had runaway were admitted to the shelter. Some returned to the agency for informal counseling sessions, others were referred to professional outpatient therapists.

Sometimes the issues were serious, such as hidden pregnancies or child abuse. Under such circumstances, Racine County Human Service Department social workers were contacted. “The most important part was the involvement of the social service system,” said Maurice Horton, the Program Coordinator. Horton stated that “Most of the time, our cases required the involvement of other social service providers.”

Many of the youth were already known to Maurice and his staff due to their prior involvement with the Racine Police Department’s Gang/Crime Diversion Task Force.

As the provider of the Racine Hotline since 1972 (now 2-1-1 Racine), SAFE Haven’s staff had an extensive knowledge of community services, which allowed youth to be appropriately referred to a wide variety of resources—including neighborhood community centers, the YMCA, YWCA and other faith-based organizations.

Root causes

The job for SAFE Haven staff was to get to the root causes of each student’s truancy, such as undiagnosed or untreated disabilities, involvement in gangs, pregnancy, homelessness and addiction—either among the youth themselves, or many times, among siblings or even parents.

A number of high school students were late in arriving to school because they were expected to care for their younger siblings. Some students reported that they avoided going to school because they didn’t have the “right” clothing, and it was an embarrassment to show up without the latest fashion gear. (Interestingly, some RUSD schools have since enforced a uniform dress code.)

Regardless of the issues, an attempt was made to reach a responsible party for every child served by making a phone call to home, or as needed, to work. Some of those calls went unanswered, some were treated as a mere annoyance, and for others, it was a scenario to be remembered for a lifetime.

In the latter case, a parent would promptly arrive to retrieve the child, and most of those youth were never apprehended again.

“Some kids never returned. There were some kids I saw two or three times. Those were the kids that were referred to the court system,” said Horton.

When a parent or other responsible party could not provide transportation back to school, bus tokens were provided to the youth with parental consent. A phone call was made to the school to verify that the student had, in fact, returned.

In some cases, the target of the intervention efforts was the parent, rather than the child. On a number of occasions, deputies provided with a list of truant students would arrive at the youth’s house only to find the youngster at home watching television with his or her caregiver.

If it was deemed appropriate, parents could be cited under the truancy ordinance in effect at that time. However, some parents reported that, although they would drop a child off at school, he or she would walk in one door and right out the other.

Carrots and sticks

In addition to potential fines for parents, the ATAP had provisions that included fines for youth. The fines increased in amount for repeat offenses. The ultimate “stick” for many youth was a potential loss of their drivers license.

However, many youth and families were also provided referrals to counseling, therapy and social service programs. “It wasn’t all about suppression or locking up the kids” said Horton, who noted that his demeanor changed from “being real stern” to an attitude of “that’s messed up” during one particular “ride-along” with law enforcement. Maurice and the deputies encountered a situation where the parents were found at home using drugs. When caught in the act, the mother lit into the truant youth with a tongue lashing, stopping only when the law enforcement officer intervened.

Horton said that sometimes he would find cases where twelve people were living in a two bedroom apartment. The truant youth often slept on the floor, or wherever there happened to be room.

Success and failure

What made the ATAP approach unique was its deliberate design to address the whole family situation, not just the immediate truancy. Once the program was launched, it got off to a very quick start.

Horton commented that “We ended up with so many kids to deal with that we had to call in additional staff.” SAFE Haven personnel who worked at the Washington Avenue facility would assist in routing youth through the building and doing the initial steps of the assessment process.

Sergeant Bill Halliday, a key figure with the Sheriffs Department in the development and operation of the effort, reported a decrease in day time juvenile crime rates while the program was in operation.

One surprising outcome of the ATAP was a discovery that, in spite of a State regulation requiring the formation of a Truancy Committee for the County, none had been officially convened up to that point in time.

Horton said that what really made a difference was the collaboration and ongoing support.

Ultimately, the original grant funding expired, and despite SAFE Haven channeling some new federal grant funds into the effort, RUSD could not find enough additional financial support to replace the Office of Justice Assistance dollars. Thus, the program came to an end.

Karen Albeck was transferred to a new position, and then retired. Sheriff McReynolds became County Executive McReynolds. In 2000 the Gang/Crime Diversion Task Force was formally transferred from the City of Racine Police Department to SAFE Haven, and as the Program Director, Maurice Horton continues to focus his efforts on finding and counseling the most severe cases.

Truancy Reduction Today

Judge Dennis Barry’s involvement on Racine’s Truancy Committee was cited by Horton as a key factor in keeping local truancy abatement efforts alive. The Committee was chaired by Scott Lewis, the former City Attorney, and included a number of key figures who could muster the legal, fiscal and human resources needed to effectively address truancy’s root causes.

The City of Racine Police now issue truancy tickets. When these citations are not paid, they can result in the issuance of a warrant, and eventually—even if it is years later—an arrest. The City assigns two to three officers, who are provided with photos of students and their schedules, to find truant students and return them to their schools.

RUSD has worked with the Public Policy Forum to conduct comparative analyses—including those on truancy—the 11th annual report of which is to be provided on October 30 at Racine’s Wingspread Conference facility.

The Legislative Audit Bureau report collected best practices on truancy in Wisconsin. One effort cited was a partnership with community agencies that is being used in Appleton, where the school district works with a teen runaway center—that city’s counterpart to SAFE Haven.


  1. I really wonder how they spin these numbers. I'm a high school teacher and in one class alone, I've got at least 5 students I haven't seen since the first day of school! Many others are way over the five-unexcused absence days! This is baloney -- they make these numbers go down the same way they are telling us not so many kids are getting suspended. It's hard to count kids as suspended when they try to violate law and send them right back to the classroom or when administration limits the number of blue slips that can be handed out to a teacher at any given time.

  2. I was just going to ask just who they are counting? Do children quit school and they are not counted (as per how many under 18 years of age that are supposed to go to school). If we have (let's say) 100 kids under 18 in Racine, 20 "drop" out of school and 5 students "skip" school is our truancy rate 5% or 25% or 16%?

  3. Children under the age of 18 legally have to be in school. Many, many years ago, one could "drop-out" at the age of 16, but that has changed to 18. This is such a complicated issue that needs to be addressed by the families, the school, and the community. It's usually not a single level intervention that will make a difference.

  4. Well done article.
    What did all this effort cost and what were the returns.
    Of the original group of 25% way back in 1998(?), how many eneded up graduating. How much $$ was spent by all the agencies? So, what was the $$/potential loser? I bet it was a big number.

  5. It seems to me that "loss of funding" is not a legitimate excuse to turn our backs on today's youth. As a community we should be ensuring that when one door closes...Another should open to take these types of necessary programs to the next level.