In early June, Gloversville police arrested a 17-year-old boy, accusing him of endangering the welfare of a child because he allegedly harbored a 14-year-old girl who was truant from the Gloversville Enlarged School District.
The case against Zachary R. Aldi remains pending, with Aldi pleading innocent.
Gloversville police said they had warned Aldi before about allowing truant youths to congregate at his residence.
“We do not always have the time to do what we like to do, but we realize truancy is a symptom of further problems,” said Anthony Clay, detectives’ captain for the Gloversville Police Department.
School officials say Aldi’s arrest sends an important message to the community. “These little messages need to be sent,” said Mark Batty, assistant principal at Gloversville High School.
Chronic truancy is an underlying cause of Gloversville’s high dropout rate of 8 percent for the 2010-11 school year, said interim Superintendent Clifford Moses.
Batty said the school district’s job is to have children succeed and graduate. “To keep this community vibrant, we need for them to graduate,” he said.
Stephen Pavone, principal at Park Terrace Elementary School, said, “We want kids to come to school. We want them to graduate.”
Students who drop out often have a difficult time finding good-paying jobs and can end up collecting social services or sometimes engaging in criminal activity or becoming victims of crime, said Fulton County District Attorney Louise Sira.
Chronic truancy is defined as 20 days of unexcused absences in a 180-day school year. At Gloversville High, about 91 of their 1,000 students are chronically truant. At Park Terrace, the number is 10 of 296.
Gloversville’s annual attendance rate for 2011 was 92 percent, compared to a state average of 95 to 96 percent. In Gloversville’s case, the difference between a 92 percent attendance rate and a 95 percent attendance rate is approximately 150 students.
Gloversville officials have been battling truancy for years, but have found over time that traditional methods are less effective.
Traditional methods include filing a “person in need of supervision” petition, or PINS, in family court, reporting a parent to the state’s Central Register of Child Abuse and Maltreatment, or both.
The family court system is overwhelmed, Pavone said, by cases dealing with broader issues involving drugs, alcohol, abuse and violence and has little time to deal with truancy.
“Fifteen years ago, we could file a PINS and go to family court and work out a system where the kid would come to school,” Batty said, “Now, there is no teeth in the law and families will eventually outlast us and laugh at us.”
New York State Central Register Child Abuse and Maltreatment Hotline will not accept a referral if truancy is the only problem raised, Sira said. Officials have to demonstrate a student’s truancy also causes developmental, social or behavioral problems, she said.
Parents don’t always cooperate, either. Some parents of chronically truant children have ignored warning letters sent by the school district and Sira’s office, officials said. The school district sends letters when a student is absent for 10 days and again when the 15-day threshold is reached.
Sira sends a letter when a child is absent for 20 days. That letter explains that parents could face action under the law for failing to ensure their children attend school. The letter requires they attend a meeting with her in order to “remain compliant with the law.” Despite the threat of legal action, some parents skip that meeting.
Sira, Pavone and Batty are members of the Fulton County Truancy Task Force, formed two years ago to help fight the problem. Members also include representatives from the Fulton County Social Services and Probation departments and Child Protective Services, the Greater Johnstown School District and Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES.
Sira said the task force has boosted awareness, encouraged partnerships and developed new policies. The task force is also working with elected state representatives to develop legislation to tackle chronic truancy.
The task force has learned plenty about the causes of chronic truancy in the area and has developed some solutions to deal with them, Sira said. Among its findings:
• School districts within Fulton County have different policies on attendance. Those differences can confuse parents who move from district to district.
• Truancy is often tied to a chaotic home life. In some homes, children and parents have conflicting schedules, with parents leaving for work before their children leave for school. Sometimes, truancy is linked to problems getting to school or chronic medical problems, such as asthma. And there are cases in which families are too poor to buy children necessities such as shoes or eyeglasses.
The Gloversville district is also reaching out to parents, with special rooms where they can meet with an education coordinator and talk specifically about problems dealing with their children. The coordinator, in turn, will meet with teachers and community representatives to find nontraditional ways to help children succeed in school.
The task force also works with medical providers to offer low-cost primary care services to students and grants to buy eyeglasses and other items.
“We have become a residential facility,” Batty said of the school district. “We provide whatever a family needs. We will provide them with food, medical help and transportation. We have tried to make the schools a more friendly place.”
Pavone said the district needs to provide a high level of support service. “Parents are caught between a rock and a hard place. They are reaching out for support, and we are trying to be proactive rather than punitive,” he said.
Sira said the next step is to develop a uniform attendance policy for the entire Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery BOCES district. “There is more work to do. You are combatting a way of thinking,” she said. “But it is a commitment on everyone’s part to see it through.”
Peter Semione, president of the Gloversville Enlarged School District Board of Education, sees great value in the task force’s efforts. “The problem has gotten better because we are partnering up with DA and other agencies,” he said.