By: Nora McCarthy
One school-day morning, Zynthia Garcia was sitting on a bench eating breakfast with friends when a truancy officer stopped her mid-bite. When asked why she wasn't in class, Garcia explained that her first class didn't start for another hour. The officer did not buy her excuse, and escorted her to the local truancy center, where she spent the entire day waiting for her mom to pick her up.
Just as the Board of Education prepares to quadruple the Truancy Reduction Alliance to Contact Kids, or TRACK program, to 27 centers citywide by next fall, some students and teachers claim the program, run as a pilot in Brooklyn for the last two years, needs work, and are calling for changes before the expansion kicks in. In the first analysis of TRACK since Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes launched it, high school students in Bushwick, organized by the community group Make the Road by Walking, found that of the 140 kids surveyed at random, 42 percent had been stopped by an officer at least once. Of those students, one-third said the officers did not explain why they had stopped them, 40 percent said the officers yelled or cursed at them, and 66 percent claimed they were not supposed to be in school at the time they were stopped.
The more some officers play the tough guy, the teens say, the more tension between cops and kids escalates. "We need to show cops how to approach a young person without making them afraid," said Jose Lopez, 15.
The TRACK centers, staffed by school safety officers and social workers, were set up to connect kids and parents to support services in the community like drug treatment and counseling. In Brooklyn, the seven centers saw 7,125 kids and 4,180 parents in their first year in operation. According to the Board of Education, about 14 percent of public school students skip school each day. The Bushwick truancy center sees about 10 kids a day.
While Make the Road organizers commend the effort to bring families together, they say unless officers get more and better training--police say they receive two days of mandated training a year--tensions will only worsen. They also add that to get kids back in the classroom sooner, the Board of Ed should move the center from the basement of a local church into the high school. This idea, which the kids plan to present at a meeting with truancy officers in September, is unlikely to get very far, however. Schools do not have the administrators or social workers to deal with truant kids, said Deputy District Attorney Mary Hughes, and no one wants police officers dragging teens in through the front door.
"Some of these kids haven't gone to school in months. We're not trying to get kids back to class faster," Hughes said, "we're trying to get them to stay there."