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Truancy program wins favor with authorities

State officials hold up the Broward program as an example of how to reduce crime by keeping kids off the streets.

Published September 24, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Reducing juvenile crime rates can be as simple as making sure children are in school, Broward County Sheriff Ken Jenne found.

In 1999, Jenne started a program to round up truant children and force their parents to pick them up and get counseling.

Since then, daytime crimes, such as auto theft, burglary, larceny and vandalism, commonly committed by juveniles, decreased more than 70 percent in Broward.

Jenne's program was showcased Tuesday by prosecutors, state school officials and child advocates who are urging other Florida counties to adopt similar programs.

"Our strong message is: Make it your business to keep kids in school before their problems become our problems," said Leon State Attorney Willie Meggs, president of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association.

If children skipping school are left on the streets, they are far more likely to use alcohol and drugs and join gangs, the group said.

Jenne and other Broward officials formed the Truancy Reduction and Intervention Program (TRIP). Deputies and police look for children who are out of school when they shouldn't be. The children are held for parents or guardians to pick up and encouraged to take part in counseling programs aimed at mending the underlying problems that may lead to truancy.

"When they are in the classroom and off the street, they are less likely to get into trouble, less likely to break the law and less likely to end up behind bars," Jenne said.

Since the program started, more than 65,000 truants have been picked up in Broward. Jenne said truancy is often a symptom of a deeper problem. He said about 47 percent of the children his office picks up can't find a parent or guardian to come get them.

About 7 percent of those picked up were already on juvenile probation, had a criminal history or were affiliated with a gang.

Statewide, more than 34,000 children who were habitually absent from school were between the ages of 7 and 9, said Dee Richter, executive director of the Florida Network of Youth and Family Services.

"These are families that are screaming for help," Richter said. "And help is available. Communities can solve a host of related woes if they treat truancy as a red flag to lead them to families that need help."

Jenne said the group is not seeking additional state funds for truancy programs because he believes the problem is a local one that can be resolved by the communities and school officials.

[Last modified September 24, 2003, 01:34:33]

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