Are schools failing to keep attendance?

April 30, 2010 9:04:07 PM PDT
Fort Bend ISD high schools have the worst truant rates in the Houston area, but why? There are startling numbers about the number of kids who are skipping class. Are some Houston-area schools hiding it from parents?

A burglary crime spree in Sugar Land prompted 13 Undercover to start investigating, but lax supervision at one school may be just the tip of an iceberg of truancy that every parent should be watching.

They call themselves the Maroon Goons -- goons on the football field, not the kind of goons that try to break into folks' homes.

Four Kempner student athletes were linked to a March burglary spree in Sugar Land.

"If they were caught burglarizing homes, they weren't in class," said Mike McKie, assistant superintendent for high schools at Fort Bend ISD.

But we've got school attendance records proving at least some of the suspects were being marked present in their athletics class when they weren't there.

That lax attendance keeping would keep parents in the dark -- parents who thought their kids were at school.

And it can offer a possible alibi for kids accused of crime.

The head of athletics at Kempner is football coach James Brown.

"Whenever we're made aware of a situation, we go back and completely investigate," McKie said.

This year, Kempner's principal was warned about student athletes going unsupervised.

And last year, a mother complained she was sent to truancy court because "attendance was never taken" by Coach Brown.

"Attendance," he was warned, "is to be taken daily and every period."

Makes you wonder how student athletes could be truant, out on an afternoon crime spree when school records show they were in supposedly in class -- especially in Fort Bend ISD, where they pride themselves for cracking down on truancy.

"Thank you please be seated," Judge Ken Cannata said to people in his courtroom.

At Cannata's crowded courtroom, everyone is here for the same reason.

"You're here today because either you or your child has been charged with the offense of failure to attend school," Cannata told the people at his courtroom.

"Your violent offenders, they have always had their start in truancy," Cannata said.

In five months, more than 873 truant cases have been filed in this one court, and the numbers suggest Fort Bend ISD is the truant capital of the entire Houston-area.

Look at state records: The five high schools with the highest truancy rates--all in Fort Bend ISD.

And Kempner is not the worst. Hightower is.

"I've had kids that come in and their hairs over their face, their head down. This is strange," Judge Cannata said.

But numbers may not tell all the story. Fort Bend may be paying a PR price for telling the truth, the truth about how many kids are skipping school every day.

"We've made a very concerted effort to enforce the compulsory attendance laws as best as we possibly can," Fort Bend ISD Safe Schools Director Ernesto Rodriguez said. "We believe we're doing that. That's why we see a higher number."

State law requires school districts to file truancy charges after a student has 10 unexcused absences in six months. They are giving a choice to file charges after three absences in four weeks.

Fort Bend does.

"Kids always test the system, and if they find out there's no accountability, like all of us, they won't comply," Cannata said.

So take a closer look. Hightower's truancy number is 913.

Now look at Kashmere. HISD, the inner city, one of the area's most high-risk high schools, one of the worst attendance rates --you know how many truancy court convictions they reported to the state? Just eight.

"I wouldn't say there's no way. I'd say I'm very surprised," Cannata said.

"Skeptical?" 13 Undercover's Wayne Dolcefino asked Cannata.

"Very skeptical," he replied.

Westside High sent out nearly 3,000 three-day truancy notices during the 2008-2009 school year.

Westbury High didn't send out any.

"I appreciate it. I really do appreciate you bringing it to our attention," HISD Superintendent Terry Grier said.

Jones High School has the worst attendance rates of any high school in southern Houston, yet the fewest warning letters to parents about their kids skipping class.

HISD lets each campus decide how tough they'll be on truancy.

But that does hide the reality from parents, taxpayers, the state?

"We'll look at it. I think you've made a good point," Grier said. "And what we'll do is pull a committee of principals together and we'll ask those very hard questions."

Of course parents won't know their kids are truant if the attendance records show they are in class when they're not.

And that's why a stressed teacher at Kempner sought help from 13 Undercover.

"It's just sad for me to see where it's going, and it's sad to see that we're allowing these students to win, but in the end, they are going to lose because something terrible is going to happen," she said. "Something terrible has already happened."

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See the states truancy records
See HISD's attendance report

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