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Published: Wednesday, 10/16/2002

Truancy a complex issue

Once writers idealized a child “playing hooky,” or, as in the case of Mark Twain's fictitious Huckleberry Finn, honored a minor who turned into a decent person despite scant exposure to school.

No more. As it has in the past, and as it must, Toledo Public Schools is cracking down on truants and their parents.

It must be done. Like it or not today's world demands citizens be educated, for their high-tech jobs, for responsible child-rearing, and for exercising their jury and voting rights as citizens. Diplomas and degrees are passports to productive lives. In most cases, but not always.

However, TPS' approach, with its narrow focus on right and wrong, crime or punishment, is just a start. It acknowledges a serious problem but may not correct it, or address the ancillary issue of getting promoted in school on merit.

It overlooks the profound ignorance among some parents about their responsibilities to their children, or even the requirements of basic child-rearing.

Sometimes children are born into chaos and live their lives there, thanks to parental mental illness - undiagnosed or unmedicated - substance abuse or both. Some times they are depressed. A trip to juvenile court won't fix that.

Sometimes a single parent who holds two or three part-time jobs is too exhausted, physically and emotionally, to pull things together, to ensure that the kids do homework, behave themselves, and, yes, go to school.

We used to have a federal program called Aid to Families with Dependent Children to address this issue. Now we insist that moms work outside the home, and devil take the truants. Where are such moms going to come up with the cash to pay the increased fines to be imposed? Where will the kids get that money?

TPS policy-makers know that in their hearts, if not in their programs. The spare-the-rod, spoil-the-child model they espouse is bare bones and, in some cases, overkill. It would give a kid a record, when some kind of educational inducement may be more effective.

It also overlooks the fact that among truants and dropouts there are occasional great successes. In his book The Underground History of American Education, former New York teacher John Taylor Gatto, argued that “there is no right way to become educated.'' He points to successful dropouts like designers Pierre Cardin and Liz Claiborne, the founders of Wendy's, McDonald's, and LearJet, and one in every 15 American millionaires.

Mr. Gatto told of kids he helped play hooky, believing their reasons for absence beat anything school had to offer them.

In times of constricted cash flows, and of public and legislative demands that schools improve test scores, a strictly “get-tough” approach is simpler, easier, cheaper, and less stressful.

But there are family and children's resources through the city and the region, that, if coordinated, could make for broader, more imaginative, and systemic solutions to truancy.

No one wants kids caught in a revolving door. But sticks and stones break bones, mental and physical. There's something to be said for tossing in a few carrots.

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