For Whom the Bell Tolls

Electronic monitoring may dramatically curb truancy. So why isn't DISD interested?

Yet truancy remains a significant problem in Dallas, resulting in thousands of youths hitting the streets without a high school diploma and few trade skills to get a decent job.

Cantrell says dropouts cost schools millions of dollars in funding from the Texas Education Agency, along with affecting economic development in Dallas County because "attracting new businesses is difficult without a well-trained, well-educated workforce." He stresses that most dropouts are smart enough to finish their education, but they start skipping school because of drug or alcohol addiction, mental problems, abuse, financial issues or emotional problems at home or school.

"If we can get that kid turned around and back in school, it not only saves society a lot of money in the long run, but it also benefits that child and future families," he says.

Cantrell has been a strong proponent of the AIM program, which he sees as yet another tool to curb truancy.

Pottinger and Stogner founded AIM in 2006 after Pottinger spent the early part of the year selling GPS monitoring to border sheriffs through his company, Criminal Justice Solutions. Pottinger, a retired psychologist, had chaired Dallas Challenge, a nonprofit that works with adolescent substance abuse, domestic violence and truancy. Dallas Challenge also runs the Truancy Enforcement Center, which Stogner directed after working in the juvenile justice system from 1983 to 1996. Stogner met Pottinger during the 10 years he spent with TEC. Stogner, also retired, says his involvement with AIM is "more of a hobby than a profession."

Both men wanted to find a way to deter kids from cutting classes, so they decided to replicate what the juvenile justice system in Dallas had been doing since the early 1990s—tracking young offenders using an ankle bracelet and a belt device. This rectangular device, which is larger than the walkie-talkie unit, contains the GPS technology. The ankle bracelet looks like a wrist watch and contains a radio frequency transmitter that sends a signal to the belt unit. If the bracelet is separated from the GPS device by more than 100 feet, authorities are notified.

Pottinger and Stogner successfully pitched their plan to Cantrell as well as Judge Chavez, who agreed to order monitoring for the more flagrant truants who came before him. "I supported this program because there is a need to find a way to handle the persistent truant—that percentage of students who, without some other type of intervention, are not going to go to school," Chavez says.

Truants are kept under court order for 180 days, and Chavez reviews their cases approximately every six weeks. If kids are unable to improve their attendance substantially, they are handcuffed by a constable and taken to the TEC. The boys are transported in pink handcuffs, just in case they think wearing cuffs makes them look tough.

The final piece to the program's implementation was finding a school to test it out. And there seemed no better choice than Thomas Jefferson High School in northwest Dallas, which was struggling with truancy and one of its biggest causes: drugs. In the fall of 2006, Chavez enlisted 19 of the high school's worst truants into the program, and Pottinger and Stogner were surprised by the results. Many kids turned their lives around, and their success extended beyond just returning to school. One student, "a big time cheese head," says Stogner, was missing from school during a routine GPS check. After determining that he was not in school, a constable was sent to find him. When the GPS unit located him, he was found on the verge of overdosing. He was taken directly to Parkland Hospital, and then placed in the Letot Detention Center, a short-term youth facility providing care for runaways, juvenile offenders and drug addicts.

"I think the monitor saved his damned life," Stogner says.

The trial run at Thomas Jefferson was considered a step forward, but Pottinger and Stogner wanted to expand the program and track the results. But they found that the administration at the school wasn't supportive of the program. "We couldn't get any traction," Pottinger says. "Nobody cared. Nobody would support us."

Pottinger maintains that this program cannot be effective without strong support from the school and its staff. "All of us felt a strong lack of interest and cooperation by the principal and administrative staff at TJ, so we moved on to a different venue," he says.

In the spring of 2007, the men moved the program to Bryan Adams in East Dallas, which had the demographics they wanted—62 percent Hispanic, 28 percent black and 10 percent white and others—because it approximated the demographics of DISD. At Bryan Adams, the men found a new partner in Principal Goodsell, who envisioned that AIM might provide a cost-effective solution to truancy.

"I embraced the program because of the truancy problems we had on our campus, and the courts weren't even keeping up with them because they were so backlogged," Goodsell says. "I knew that any help I could get would be better than what I had."

————

The gang symbols and graffiti are gone from the walls of Bryan Adams, for which Principal Goodsell is both grateful and responsible. Instead, fresh white paint spruces up the hallways and a mural of the school's mascot, the Cougar, replaces the once bullet-riddled glass above the school's front door. But Goodsell isn't just about cosmetics. She is a meat-and-potatoes principal when it comes to tardiness and truancy. And once the bell rings between classes, she insists that the tsunami of students flooding the halls not linger more than necessary.

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