For Whom the Bell Tolls
On a cloudy May morning, the 1,700 students of Bryan Adams High School enter the building in different states of haste, some racing to class to beat the 8:35 bell, some loitering with friends unaware of time or space, some openly defiant and bent on being tardy.
A metal detector slows down traffic and Fanny Aragon, as she stands in a line of students and grows anxious about being late. Aragon, 16, hands over her bags for inspection. Inside her black purse sits the key to her punctuality, a Global Positioning System, which tracks her whereabouts 24/7 in a court-ordered attempt to keep her in school. Aragon has a history of ditching class, missing the majority of her first semester in the ninth grade because of a miscarriage. She spent some time in the hospital and then simply couldn't muster the strength to come back to school.
"I felt depressed and didn't want to socialize," Aragon says. "I just wanted to be by myself."
The GPS device she carries is lightweight, looks like a walkie-talkie and is part of an innovative program to prevent students from dropping out. Aragon is one of the thousands of Dallas adolescents whose chronic truancy—missing more than 50 school days a year—swells the dockets of Dallas County's four truancy courts. The program, administered by the Dallas County Truancy Court-North, is called Attendance Improvement Management and is one of only a few programs nationwide using GPS to force kids to attend school.
AIM's monitoring system employs a cell phone and provides for constant surveillance via satellite, tracking Aragon's position within 5 to 10 feet of her location. The signal is picked up every 10 minutes and sent to a computer, but since most kids live close to school, each one is required to press a locator button three times in case the signal is lost inside the building. Aragon does this three times a day: when she arrives at school in the morning, at lunchtime and after coming home for her obligatory 9 p.m. curfew when she receives an automated digital phone call that requires her to call back within three minutes. Upon returning the call, she must read a series of numbers, and the system recognizes her voice, which confirms her identity. If Aragon does not respond to calls or isn't where she's supposed to be, a Dallas County constable picks her up and brings her to court.
Those who work with dropouts say truancy is just the symptom of much deeper problems. Some kids cut class because they are drinking and drugging, others are too tired to come to school because they work late to help their families pay bills or baby-sit their younger siblings so their parents can work late. Some are runaways or throwaways, having no one at home who gives a damn about them, much less their education. And some are just plain lazy.
The magnitude of the problem is staggering as well. Thirty-seven percent of all high school freshmen in the Dallas Independent School District—more than 5,000 students—are expected to drop out this year. In April, a study by the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center ranked Dallas the seventh worst among the 50 largest cities, with a 44.4 percent graduation rate in 2004. And the societal cost of dropping out goes far beyond the dumbing down of the populace. Studies reveal that chronic truants who drop out may be doomed to a lifetime of poverty and poor-paying jobs. The dropout rate is a predictor for future involvement in gang activity, drug use and daytime burglaries.
That is why applying a high-tech, one-size-fits-all Band-Aid to solve such a complex social problem seems at best insubstantial.
But Dallas County, to its credit, has taken a comprehensive approach to truancy, using the soft touch of social services to address the root causes of truant behavior, and the hard press of truancy courts to enforce the law against parent and child alike. Principals committed to this approach such as Bryan Adams' Cindy Goodsell have dramatically altered attitudes in their schools by reducing truancy and making their schools a safer place to learn. But the driving political force behind reducing truancy in Dallas County has been County Commissioner Mike Cantrell who, along with Principal Goodsell, has become a champion of the AIM program.
Although the program's local founders, Dr. Paul Pottinger and Shelton Stogner, cite Pottinger's recent study chronicling the success of their program, they were surprised to learn that the program affects more than truancy rates. "What we learned is a little bit of attention, respect and focus on these kids goes a long way," Pottinger says.
Before Aragon became one of nine Bryan Adams students to take part in this spring's pilot program, she stayed out late on weeknights and spent most weekends at a friend's house. She says depression was the cause of her truancy and spending time with friends at night became her only escape. But the AIM curfew forced her to be at home and spend more time with her mother and sister, improving her relationships with them and giving her more time to study. Aragon now says that after graduating from Bryan Adams, she hopes to attend college and then law school.
Despite mounting evidence of its success, the program has raised concerns among some civil libertarians who question whether the constant surveillance invades the privacy of students. State Senator Royce West, a powerful member of the Senate Education Committee, has also voiced his opposition to the program, maintaining that it treats kids like criminals.
Although DISD has appointed a liaison to the program, it has failed to back AIM with funding. The county commissioners court set aside $500,000 last year in its budget to expand the program with the expectation that DISD would match the funds. However, the district hasn't budgeted any money and has no plans to do so, even though it receives funding from the Texas Education Agency based on average daily attendance. DISD loses about $35 for each day a student is not in school, which adds up to millions in lost funding each year.
Jon Dahlander, spokesman for DISD, says the district did not have available funds to match the contribution from the county and notes that DISD is facing a tight budget year and a slight dip in enrollment, which makes funding the program "difficult if not impossible." He says the district would prefer to see the program work over the course of a full school year, but what they've seen over a six-week period is "very promising."
"We're constantly on the lookout for grants, and when and if we find something that this might match, we'd certainly consider it," he says.
At least one supporter of the program believes that DISD may be undermining the program because of its intractable focus on Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills testing. Bruce Leadbetter, an equity investor, claims the district encourages truants to drop out before taking the TAKS exams in order to keep their scores out of the overall school's performance.
"It is not in the schools' best interest to keep these kids," he says. "Their interest is putting them on the street to make it the county's or city's problem."
Dahlander claims that DISD has no indication that this is happening, and if so, the district would not advocate it. "We can't see any teacher who's in the education business—who's there for students, who wants to help students—actually encouraging students to drop out," he says.
Commissioner Cantrell has a long history of dealing with the school district's intransigence. "DISD has never taken the approach to truancy that it really needs to with the volume of kids that are dropping out of its schools," he says. "In my opinion, it's just not a high priority for them."
Cantrell is no stranger to Dallas County's truancy problems. He spent two-and-a-half years overseeing the juvenile docket in Garland as a municipal court judge before hearing hundreds of truancy cases in eight years as a justice of the peace for the Garland area. During his successful campaign for commissioner in 1994, truancy reform was part of his platform.
"Basically, there was really nothing we could do about truancy other than bluff kids to try to get them back to school," he says.
Shortly after taking office, Cantrell joined other state and local officials in an effort to change how the courts view truancy in Dallas County. He successfully lobbied the Legislature for a change in state law that empowered courts to initiate contempt proceedings against students failing to obey court orders to return to school. The new law took effect in 1996.
With the law on the books, the Dallas Challenge Truancy Enforcement Center was opened to receive contempt referrals from JPs. The TEC, referred to as a diversionary program, handles 1,500-2,000 cases yearly and works with truants for 90 days to help them avoid spending time in juvenile detention. TEC case managers interview each truant and assess whether they have problems with drugs, abuse or mental heath. If so, they can be immediately referred to any of approximately 40 cooperating county agencies.
But with their dockets filled with cases ranging from traffic tickets to evictions, the JPs were simply unable to deal with their overwhelming truancy docket, as the average case was taking 77 days from filing to court date. So in 1999, Cantrell began working on plans to create specialized truancy courts in Dallas County, two of which would exclusively serve DISD. But redistricting and repeated delays from the Dallas City Council and DISD postponed the courts' opening until 2002. A third truancy court overseeing DISD opened in 2003, and a fourth hearing cases from Garland, Mesquite and Richardson ISDs began operations in 2007.
These courts created a more efficient truancy system, allowing cases to be heard much more quickly, and reduced the annual number of DISD filings from 20,000 to approximately 15,000. Judge Rey Chavez of the north truancy court says the courts have also created more consistency in the process, and his cases are normally heard within 10 to 20 days from filing.
"That makes a big difference because if you wait 75 days before you get them into court, then that kid has already lost one or two semesters, possibly failing an entire year," Chavez says. "If I can get them in two to three weeks from the case filing, then I can at least save the year and hopefully the semester."
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.
"Get your butts to class," Goodsell tells a cluster of kids having a discussion as if they had no place to be. "C'mon, get a move on," she tells another student.
After the second bell rings, she spots a straggler. "Roberto, come here," she says. The student gets a stern look from Goodsell, who asks what he's doing. "Nothing," he says, looking down at the floor, seemingly unaware that he'll be late to his class. Goodsell sends him to the vice principal's office for discipline.
It wasn't always like this at Bryan Adams, not until DISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa plucked Goodsell from Irving's Lamar Middle School in 2006 to turn around what Goodsell calls "a broken school." When she began her tenure, the police seemed to have a permanent presence at Bryan Adams, and Goodsell didn't wear jewelry or fancy clothes and refused to drive her Lexus to work out of fear it would be stripped for parts before she left. The students' lack of respect for teachers resulted in verbal and physical attacks. No learning was taking place, says Goodsell, and there were no systems in place to make safety the priority.
On her first day at Bryan Adams, Goodsell fired the registrar, who was in charge of verifying the addresses of students to ensure they lived within the school's boundaries. Accurate verification reduced the rolls by nearly 900 kids, many of them problem students who had been kicked out of other schools. She fired 20 teachers who said they were unhappy in their work, dismissed three assistant principals and set up tardy tanks in the auditorium and cafeteria where students had to earn their way back into class. Within two years, she reduced the number of tardies from 400 per class period to six.
"I don't want to take the credit for it," she says modestly. "But I was elated about it because I thought we were beginning to make success possible for many more kids than we had before."
Goodsell has taken a personal interest in many of the students involved in AIM, including their parents—several of whom expressed their excitement about the new hope their kids had, she says. One of her favorites is Ricardo Pacheco, a former gang leader.
In January 2007, Goodsell asked for a meeting with the leaders of the Bloods and the Crips—rival gangs at the school—to broker a truce between them. Pacheco was leader of the Crips—known as the East Side Homies—and a third-generation gang banger. Pacheco helped convince Goodsell to introduce a dress code at Bryan Adams, which bans the use of gang colors (red and blue).
After the meeting, she took Pacheco under her wing. She gave his family money to pay bills while his father was in jail. "I love that kid," she says. But Pacheco was skipping school regularly and was on pace to lose credit for his classes. He became one of 46 chronic truants at Bryan Adams under court order to wear an ankle bracelet and GPS device, a unit that soon became known simply as "the box."
Pacheco, now 18 years old and about to graduate, didn't miss a day of school while in the AIM program. He says he stopped smoking pot and snorting cocaine and is no longer affiliated with gangs. It became easier to leave the gang once he was in the monitoring program because gang members felt as though they were being watched too. He credits the program for keeping him in school and Goodsell for keeping him on the right path. "I have changed a lot," he says.
Other truants report similar changes. Josh Cervantes, a 16-year-old freshman, started missing school when his friends convinced him to spend the day smoking marijuana instead. "We didn't have anything else to do," he says. "Mainly, all we did is smoke."
Cervantes stopped smoking and started attending school, thanks to GPS monitoring and court-ordered drug testing. He says he was missing two to three days of school every week, and he's missed just one class since the program began.
Some of his friends also snort cheese, which is a mixture of heroin and Tylenol PM that has claimed several lives in the Dallas area, but Cervantes had enough sense not to indulge. "The only way to distance myself from them was to stop smoking," he says.
Cervantes says the monitoring helped improve his grades and family relationships along with keeping him in school. Instead of coming home on weekdays around 10 or 11 p.m., he is spending more time with his parents in the afternoon when he gets home from school. "Now, whenever they eat, I get to eat too," he says.
Jaime Pacheco (not related to Ricardo), another 16-year-old freshman, cites laziness as the cause for missing approximately two out of every three weeks of school. He would regularly stay up until 2 a.m. watching TV, which caused him to sleep until noon and beyond on school days. Jaime says he didn't like school or see the point of going. "I always thought it wasn't worth my time."
His parents, who live in Irving and Plano, left him with his grandfather when he was just 18 months old. He sees his mother on Thursdays and his father on weekends, and claims their absence from his everyday life doesn't bother him. His grandfather, Carlos Mendez, says otherwise, laying the blame for Jaime's truancy on his strained relationship with his parents. "He's like ours, you know, but I think he wants his parents more involved than they've been," Mendez says. "They're not there for him, and I think that really discourages him more than anything else."
Jaime shut down when he first started missing school, says Mendez, but when he started the monitoring program, it opened up his eyes and he started asking questions. Mendez credits the GPS device with giving his grandson a second chance, and Jaime says the curfew has brought him closer to his grandparents. He's even helping out with chores, something he refused to do in the past.
"Just knowing that people are watching me, helping me out with schoolwork and keeping me aligned in school has helped me a lot," Jaime says.
When the first pilot program at Bryan Adams was completed in the spring of 2007, Pottinger prepared a 67-page report which analyzed the results of the program. The study examined 92 truants who accrued a staggering 5,095 unexcused absences in the first 10 weeks of the spring semester—an average of 55 absences per student. These chronic truants were split into a monitored group and a control group.
The 46 monitored students went from an average attendance of 85 percent, which is below the 90 percent requirement to get class credit, to 97 percent during the six-week pilot. The top half (23) of them had almost perfect attendance at 99.75 percent. Meanwhile, the control group continued to miss class, ranging from 83 percent to 85 percent over the same time period.
The program's success was enough to convince Cantrell and the Dallas County Commissioners Court to budget $500,000 to expand AIM, with the provision that DISD would match the funds. But the program wasn't well-received by some local politicians, most notably Senator Royce West.
Commissioner Cantrell would not repeat West's specific concerns, but he confirmed that West "has a serious problem" with using electronic monitoring. "He didn't want to do it, and the school district didn't want to do it," Cantrell says. "So that's why we're not doing it."
West says he is opposed to the use of ankle bracelets because they "send the wrong signal" to students and are intrusive. "Are they truants? Yes. Are they criminals? No," he says. "Do we need to deal with truancy? Yes, we do."
Based on a May 12 New York Times article about the AIM program citing "a state senator" who compared the ankle bracelets to "slave chains" and sources telling the Observer that West's concerns were related to a connection with slavery, he was asked if his opposition was in fact racially rooted.
"Everybody can opine on what they think," he says. "But the reality is that I don't want kids getting used to having to wear ankle bracelets. They put them on and become accustomed to it, and then they can't do without them. I just think it sends the wrong signal."
Dotty Griffith, public education director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, raises similar concerns about "criminalizing students because it's so similar to electronic monitoring for students under house arrest." She also has some reservations about the extent to which AIM violates the privacy rights of students, particularly because it uses a device to track kids after school hours. "Obviously, we'd be concerned that the systems were set up so that you weren't able to hack and track—where somebody could hack into the system and somehow track a child."
Although West's concerns delayed funding for an expanded program, Pottinger credits West with challenging him to redesign the program. The Bryan Adams' pilot this spring, though smaller in number, used a walkie-talkie unit with a cell phone inside, instead of the ankle bracelet employed in the first two trials.
West says he hasn't seen the new unit, but he will be evaluating it to see if it addresses his concerns. And he says if the unit is similar to a traditional cell phone, "then that's OK with me."
Tom Urrutia, a former DISD teacher who tracks the students for AIM using the Internet, was skeptical that the program wouldn't have the same success without the ankle bracelets because "the kids were pretty much tethered before." But the nine students in this spring's program achieved near perfect attendance while being monitored, with just four unexcused class absences among them.
The program is financially feasible, adds Urrutia, and while it's not a perfect system, "it certainly works well." If he could add something to the program, he'd want to provide more intensive communications, including helping the parents get health insurance and jobs.
Pottinger has plans to expand AIM to between 600 and 800 truants over the course of a full school year, which he estimates will cost approximately $638,000. Despite a March meeting with DISD officials Jose Torres and Karen Ramos at which Pottinger says they "enthusiastically" invited AIM to be part of a federal grant request, the district says the program was not included in any grants and there are no immediate plans to match the county's $500,000 pledge. DISD spokesman Jon Dahlander confirms that the grant was discussed with Pottinger, but says there was less funding available in the grant than anticipated, so the money was used to support existing programs. Ramos, who was the principal at Bryan Adams before Goodsell and is the director of alternative programs for DISD, refused to comment to the Observer.
But Pottinger isn't giving up, and neither is Cantrell. Cantrell sent a briefing on the program to several people including DISD officials and Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle to gain support for AIM. Until then, funding for any further pilots will likely come from Bruce Leadbetter, who says he's spent more than $300,000 on the first three trials.
Pottinger says he may change his business model to training and certifying schools after hearing from schools in Waco, Arizona and California that became interested in the program as a result of the recent publicity garnered from a June 10 story on CBS Evening News with Katie Couric. And Principal Goodsell is lobbying DISD to find funding to retain the program at Bryan Adams.
On May 23, Fanny Aragon, Josh Cervantes and Jaime Pacheco came to school ready to hand in their monitors along with the other six students in the program. Pottinger and Urrutia greeted them with cookies and doughnuts, and the students happily handed over their devices.
Pacheco says "it feels good" to get rid of the monitor, but it helped him take the time to realize that he needs to graduate to get a good job.
Cervantes says he wouldn't be where he is without the support of everyone involved in the program. "They're trying to help me," he says. "The only way I can help them back is to keep doing what I'm supposed to be doing so I can make it in life."
As for Aragon, she says "it feels weird" because she is so used to being monitored now. She leans back, takes a deep breath and reveals that she's "worried a little bit." Aragon will be spending the summer with family members in Mexico, trying to heal emotional wounds from her miscarriage and the strained relationship with her father, who disappeared in January after her grandmother died. She holds onto the image of watching other students leave the truancy court in handcuffs, remembering how scared she was that day.
"Hopefully, I won't go back to what I was."
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