As of mid-March, the Metropolitan Police Department has engaged 3,260 truants so far this school year. In these cases, truant patrol officers pick up and transport children back to a school or a temporary holding facility. MPD says they could pick up more if they had more officers and vans.

Truancy Contacts by MPD District, August 2012-March 22, 2013.

Data from MPD Investigative Services Bureau, Youth Investigations Division.

MPD has two truant patrol officers in one van per police district (there are 7 districts citywide). Each seats a maximum of 10 passengers. But Assistant Police Chief Diane Groomes said in an interview that MPD could easily fill 10 Metrobuses each school day.

Could DC take a significant bite out of truancy just by giving MPD enough officers and vans to pick up all of the truants they could find?

The truants come from all police districts across the city, based on data Groomes provided, though the 5th District, in Northeast DC, had far more truants than the others. Although MPD engages truants in the 7-11 age group (96 in the current sample), the vast majority are in the 15-18 age group (1,774).

Truancy Contacts by MPD District, August 2012-March 22, 2013.  Data from MPD Investigative Services Bureau, Youth Investigations Division.

Of the 3,260, no one really knows how many are repeat offenders and how many are one-timers. DC schools do not maintain a central database. The records they do maintain are primarily on site, in paper form.

MPD keeps only paper receipts of its #379 Truancy forms. And those are in dusty drawers somewhere, with no names, and only one form is issued for each truant processed.

MPD could establish an electronic database which officers can access from their computers, vehicle laptops and MPD smartphones. Although strong restrictions prevent MPD and other agencies from accessing schools’ student records, MPD could create a database of truant contacts just to account for how officers are spending their time.

Such a database would help officers and give school officials and support agencies and organizations track and rank the most chronic truants — particularly those who move between schools. Normal restrictions on preventing public access to juvenile records would still be in place for those outside of MPD, school officials, and select agencies.

Although there are a plethora of organizations and agencies that work to address truancy, few of them keep reliable (if any) records of their contacts and outcomes. Of those that do, like the truancy task force — which only has about 60 contacts recorded so far this school year — these records don’t provide enough data to reduce the large scope of this problem.

When MPD contacts with truants alone are hundreds of times larger than the number of truants being touched by the truancy task force, it’s difficult to imagine how these can be considered effective with current practices. Truancy agencies and organizations are limited in their work by the very fact that parents must agree to voluntarily accept their services.

The consequences of truancy go beyond the classroom. Young children, and even those as old as 18, on the streets can easily be tempted by or lured into criminal behavior. Sex trafficking for girls is a serious problem, MPD officials confirm. Individuals and gangs in some communities convince young children to carry contraband.

While it won’t be easy to solve the root causes of truancy, at a very minimum DC can remove the obvious truant students from the streets and attempt to connect them with their appropriate school.

The numbers increase at jaw dropping levels each month. We have no time to waste. The District’s students, many of whom have tremendous potential, cannot afford to have the system fail them.

Martin Moulton is an education advocate who lives in the Shaw neighborhood. He is originally from California where he attended public, private and parochial schools. He works in the tech sector. A life long cyclist/non-driver, he serves on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Moulton has served as a consultant to KIPP DC in its community outreach.