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Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli at the National Conference for the Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools
National Harbor, Md. ~ Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Remarks as prepared for delivery.

Good afternoon and thank you. I am very happy to be joining you today on behalf of the Department of Justice. It is great to see Bill Modzeleski continuing to lead the effort to make our schools safer, as he was the last time I served in government. Bill and his office are doing great work, and I’m pleased to be with all of you here today.

I am very happy to be at here for two reasons. First and foremost, I’m a parent. I have two sons, and, like all parents, I want them to have every opportunity in life. Although they aren’t of school age yet, I know that education will be their key, as it was for me. What all of you in this room are doing matters to me personally.

What you are doing also matters to me professionally. It isn’t often that, as Associate Attorney General, I get to walk into a room full of educators and education advocates. I think that in many communities, and for many Americans, what the Department does and what so many of you do are thought of as opposite ends of the spectrum. The theory goes that students have had to make choices and they can either make good choices, and succeed in school, or they can make bad choices, and end up in the criminal justice system. The theory would follow that you take care of the good kids and get them to college, and we take care of the bad kids and get them off the streets.

One of the reasons I am here today is because you and I know that that’s not how the world works. People who actually work in law enforcement, and people who actually work in our nation’s schools, know that our jobs are closely interwoven. When their neighborhoods and homes don’t feel safe, our children have a tough time paying attention in school. And when our children are not engaged at school, they’re going to be much more likely to get into trouble outside of it.

Attorney General Janet Reno really drove this point home to me when I worked for her back in the 1990s. Attorney General Reno had been a prosecutor down in Florida, where she had taken a leading role in reforming the juvenile justice system there, and had worked actively on issues that affect children. I remember that once, when she was on a long plane flight, she took out a pen and paper and started to outline the elements of law enforcement policy, all the factors that go into making a community safe.

A number of the things on that list focused on what we think of as traditional law enforcement issues: Do we have enough officers on the streets? Are those officers using the right techniques? Are we being smart in how we prosecute crime?

But what stood out to me about that list was how many of the elements on that list were things that most people never think of as law enforcement issues. On her list – Head Start, available childcare for working families. Indeed, she started her list with pre-natal care, which she viewed as the first step in ensuring safe communities. Wherever one thinks we should start, we all know that it takes a lot more than police, prosecutors and prisons to make a community safe. You need people who watch out for each other and who have a stake in their community. You need an economic base that keeps people engaged and relatively free from need. And you need safe schools.

Much of what we are doing in today’s Justice Department is based on our recognition that we need broad partnerships to make our communities safe, and that good law enforcement is essential to building healthy communities. That means revitalizing the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services – or COPS – which was so successful at bringing down crime in the 1990s and which, in those years, also funded School Resource Officers (SROs) to help make our schools safer. That means re-building the partnerships with state and local authorities who are the first responders to most crime in this country and who are best positioned to make our communities safer. And that means re-engaging with our partners in health care, education, and other areas not traditionally thought of as part of law enforcement.

We are lucky to have, in Eric Holder, an Attorney General who has always understood these connections. Some of the best things we are doing today on this issue are things that Eric Holder started ten years ago, when he served as Deputy Attorney General. He started up the Justice Department’s Safe Start Initiative, which looks to find new, evidence-based ways to deliver better services to children who are exposed to violence. That program takes a multi-dimensional approach to protecting our youth, creating partnerships among all the people who have interests in protecting children. Improving the services being offered to children who are exposed to violence takes more than our law enforcement and judicial resources. It requires us to tap into our early childhood education, our mental health, and our prevention-of-substance-abuse resources.

Attorney General Holder really drives home to all of us that when we think about law enforcement, we need to think broadly. You all practice that lesson every day, working hard to keep kids safe at school. I know that your goal is education, but schools also play a key role in law enforcement in any number of ways. I want to focus in today on one aspect of what you do in particular, that evidence shows is critical both for future student success and for overall community safety: the challenge of keeping kids in school.

Keeping kids in school matters because as we all know, excessive absence is a predictor of poor achievement and higher dropout rates. That matters not just because we want every child to have every opportunity to succeed, but because we want our communities safe. The evidence is clear: truants are at greater risk of facing a lifetime of problems. Missing school is a good indicator that a student will become delinquent, use alcohol and drugs, commit violence, or become involved in a gang. These aren’t just young people out having some harmless fun. Though they may not realize it, their behavior and actions have serious – and destructive – consequences. As one California prosecutor put it, "I’ve never seen a gang member who wasn’t a truant first."

The prosecutor knew what she was talking about, because the research bears out her concerns. A study of 12- to 15-year-olds in Denver, Colo. for the American Society of Criminology found that even so-called minor truants are four times as likely to commit serious assaults and five times as likely to commit serious property crimes as other students. For chronic truants – students who miss more than nice days in a given year – the numbers are even starker. A student who misses more than nice days in a year is 12 times as likely to commit serious assaults and more than 21 times likely to commit serious property crimes.

Truancy is a similarly strong indicator of drug use. A study in Rochester, N.Y. from the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that minor truants are seven times as likely to begin using marijuana by age 14, and chronic truants are 16 times as likely.

And it doesn’t stop there. Truants are more likely to go to prison, they’re more likely to become pregnant as teenagers, they’re more likely to have marital problems as adults. And the list goes on.

And if you’re thinking that these figures just affect a few troubled kids, think again. Habitual or chronic truancy is all too common. A recent Open Society Institute analysis of students in Baltimore, Md. found that 9 percent of all public school students were deemed habitually truant, meaning they were illegally absent 20 percent or more of the time. In Wisconsin, where habitual truancy is defined as five or more illegal absences in a semester, 45 percent of students fell into this category according to news reports.

So what do we do about it? How do we get kids back in school? And not just back in school, but engaged?

The first thing we need to do is to get the message out that school is important. This means making sure that parents understand the risks of truancy, and holding them responsible when their kids are absent. And I’m aware that it’s not always sheer parental apathy that’s the problem. Often, it’s an issue of trying to meet other needs, particularly in some difficult economic times – whether it’s a parent relying on an older child to babysit a younger child so the parent can go to work, or maybe even concern about the safety of a child who has to walk through a dangerous neighborhood in order to get to school. We know that parents are facing tough choices and priorities. We need to work to make sure that when they have to make those choices, they understand and appreciate the consequences of staying away from school – and that they have the services they need, so that they can make the choice to come to school.

I don’t want to make excessive demands of our school administrators and educators, because I know that we already expect so much of them, but it’s important that school officials reach out to parents. They need to let them know, first of all, that their kids aren’t coming to school. We can’t forget that, in many cases, parents don’t know what their kids are up to. And schools also need to let parents know that they will be held accountable and that there will be consequences if their children skip school. This is, after all, not just an issue of one child’s occasional absences; it’s a serious matter of public safety. What we learned in the 1990s was that, for most young people who end up in the criminal justice system, there were dozens and sometimes more than a hundred opportunities for intervention – warning signs to which we could have responded, and points at which, with a proper response, we might have been able to change the future of that young person for the better. We have to do a better job of responding to these warning signs.

While parents are perhaps the most important part of the solution, they are not the only ones who need to get involved. We need a multi-tiered approach, involving school officials, community agencies, and, yes, law enforcement. School Resource Officers – or SROs – are an important part of this, and not just because having an officer close by the scene of the crime can make a difference. SROs are also doing classroom teaching on subjects from how to resist gangs to the consequences of shoplifting. They’re mentoring students. Sometimes they are just going jogging with the track team. And we see that where you have a SRO, you have increased levels of trust in the police. What you’re getting, among other things, is one more adult that the child knows and trusts at that school – and one more adult who the child knows cares whether the child shows up for class each day.

We need these School Resource Officers and school officials and parents all right on top of the problem, because we need to identify our future truants the first chance we can get. There’s often a disconnect between our perception of truancy’s causes and the reality. Many people ascribe truancy to the mercurial behavior of adolescents. They suddenly become bored with school or fall in with the wrong crowd. So some administrators and policymakers assume that there is no way to predict if a child will become a truant.

In fact, research shows just the opposite. There’s a study that some of you may know about involving about 14,000 students in Philadelphia, called "An Early Warning System." Researchers followed these students from the time they entered the sixth grade until the time they would be expected to graduate six years later. They specifically looked for signs that would show at least a 75 percent probability of dropping out of school. The findings are fascinating. What the researchers found is that there were four signals that indicated that a student had a three in four chance of dropping out in those next six years. The signals were – and this is in the sixth grade, remember – that these students had:

A final grade of F in math;

A final grade of F in English;

Attendance below 80 percent for the year; and

A final "unsatisfactory" behavior mark in at least one class.

If a student had just one of these indicators, there was a 75 percent chance that he or she would eventually drop out of school. Students with more than one of these signals had an even greater probability of dropping out.

So let’s put all of this together, and figure out where we have to go: We know that when a child misses school, the likelihood that the child is going to go on to commit serious crimes starts increasing pretty quickly. And we know that there are things we can look at in sixth grade to figure out whether that kid is going to end up dropping out. Let’s put it simply: If we’re going to keep kids out of jail, we need to get to them while they’re young. And we all have a role to play in that. The question is – how do we do it?

We know that there are strategies that work in identifying truancy problems early, and in finding solutions. We know that continual monitoring, contact and home visits of families can be enormously effective in reducing chronic absenteeism. We know that a continuum of long-term, multi-disciplinary services, including family support and case management, is essential. And we know that using the monitoring authority of the courts can be very effective in some circumstances.

I’ll highlight a couple of programs that have shown us some positive results. The Truancy Reduction Demonstration Program is one. That program, I should mention, is funded by our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in partnership with our hosts here, the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. It employs all these strategies – monitoring, contact, home visits, family support, and yes, the authority of the courts – and has shown some great successes. The average unexcused absent rate for truants dropped by half after three months of intervention – a drop that we now know is correlated with reductions in crime. To take one sample site – the truancy and diversion program in Jacksonville, Fla. – over a 10-year period, the number of juveniles sentenced to state prison dropped from 47 to 5, and the number sentenced to jail dropped from 201 to 22. Again, this program and others like it are successful because they rely on a range of strategies, and they involve partners from across the spectrum.

I should emphasize here that I’m not trying to put the solution off on educators and social workers. Just as truancy has consequences over in the legal system, there also ways to address it in the legal system. I want to highlight one program in particular here. It’s the Truancy Intervention Project – or TIP – in Fulton County, Ga. This isn’t one of the Truancy Reduction Program sites being funded by the Justice Department and the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, but it’s a great example of how the justice system, working with schools and the community, can be effective in getting at truancy and keeping kids out of trouble.

TIP is a partnership between the Fulton County Juvenile Court and the Atlanta Bar Association, aimed at providing early intervention to children in Atlanta Public and Fulton County Schools who are chronically absent and who either become involved with the court or are referred to early intervention at the school level.

TIP gets referrals from school social workers, and then pairs trained volunteers, some of whom are attorneys, with children and their families. The social workers and the TIP volunteer then meet with the student and the family to develop a plan designed to lead to solid attendance. TIP has served more than 5,000 children over the years, and has had some remarkable success stories – like for the third-grader who was having attendance problems. TIP and its volunteers worked out arrangements for the third-grader to spend school-weeks with her grandmother, who could make sure that she got to school on time. This is a student whom TIP caught early, before the full implications of truancy had become apparent. But TIP has also worked later on: like the young woman who had sporadic attendance for over a year, and whose truancy had escalated to some pretty serious offenses. Hers had become a familiar face around Juvenile Court. She got involved in TIP, and there, she said, "You have to decide for yourself that your life is worth something, and for me that meant getting an education." She graduated from high school and went on to college on a full scholarship.

TIP has had an incredible impact on many lives. One of its most notable aspects is its Early Intervention program, which they instituted in elementary schools. The success rate – which is based on the number of children who are not referred to juvenile court after their involvement with TIP – is greater than 95 percent.

And let me emphasize, this focus on truancy has had real consequences for the criminal justice system. It is estimated that by keeping these kids out of juvenile court, Fulton County has saved more than $4.2 million in court-appointed attorney fees alone, not to mention the other more indirect costs associated with juvenile crime and delinquency.

We need more programs like these, programs that identify problems early on and jump in to help with all available resources.

And while you are working to keep kids in school and out of the criminal justice system, we in law enforcement need to be keeping your kids safe so they can focus on learning.

On the whole, schools remain a place of relative safety. Students experience fewer crimes on school grounds than away from school. But the numbers are still too high. About 1.7 million students age 12 to 18 were victims of crime at school in 2006, 767,000 of them victims of violent crime. And according to the 2005-2006 School Survey on Crime and Safety, almost 80 percent of public schools have had a violent crime incident during the year.

So while you are working overtime to keep tabs on students, to talk to their families, and to make sure that the kids who are most at risk get the support they need to help them come to school, we in law enforcement are watching for the next threat, preventing every harm we can, and helping heal the harms that have been done. We know that the greatest threat is no longer just the biggest kid on the playground. That’s why we’re taking an expansive view of what it takes to keep kids safe and in school.

It’s why, together with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, we recently awarded almost $33 million in grants under the Safe Schools/Healthy Students Initiative to prevent violence and to improve attendance, achievement and mental health in our nation’s schools. That’s a program that takes a coordinated, integrated approach from the state. Educational agencies partner up with local law enforcement to apply for these grants, which they then use for anything from anti-bullying programs to rehabilitative justice programs, where a prosecutor comes into the school to develop the kinds of peer juries that are used to help groups of young people come to terms with the harms they inflict on each other and themselves.

It’s also why the Justice Department is developing task forces to fight the internet predators who seek to do our children harm. It’s why we’re developing curriculum, like the Gang Resistance Education and Training Program, to help keep kids out of gangs.

We do all of this because we know that just as good schools are part of keeping a neighborhood safe, safe neighborhoods are a key part of keeping our kids in school and learning. We know this is a team effort, and if we try to divide things up as education issues or law enforcement issues, we are going to lose our children. If you want to keep kids out of jail, let’s do what it takes to keep them in class. It’s the right thing for our and their futures, and it’s the right thing for our cities, towns and villages.

I want to thank those of you who have seen the importance of this issue, and who have been working to get kids back in school and engaged. Your work will pay huge dividends – for thousands of young people, for the safety of your communities, and for the future of our country.

Thank you.

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