In the late morning of the first day of the new semester at John O'Connell High School of Technology, two boys stage their finely choreographed escape. While the security guard's back is turned, they scamper out the front door onto the sidewalk on Folsom Street in the Mission. Hoods pulled down to obscure their smiling faces, they crouch over and sneak past the office windows of Principal Rick Duber, who says snuffing out truancy at the school is one of his top priorities this year. After the teens make it past the main office's windows, they break into a mad dash down the street. Free!
School officials say they have no idea where the kids go when they cut class; otherwise, they'd go get them. Perhaps they could start with a walk around the neighborhood: The two boys venture less than a block away from O'Connell, sitting down in front of a house on Treat Avenue. The man who lives in the house is so irked about kids constantly loitering on his steps that he looked into buying a device called the Mosquito that emits a high-pitched drone that purports to repel people under 25 years old.
"Where are the drugs?" asks the first boy in Spanish."In here," the other answers in English, reaching into his hoodie's kangaroo pocket and pulling out a pear he's bored through with a pencil and stuffed with weed. He says the pear came from the school cafeteria — your government-subsidized produce in action. The teens take turns with the Bob Marley lighter and the impromptu pipe.
They've been caught skipping before, and they've gotten the lectures and letters, but the boys don't seem overly concerned. "We skip whenever we want to skip," one says. And what's stopping them? When the truants recognize two staff members walking by, one of the boys merely stows the pear pipe in his pocket. Neither adult asks whether they are supposed to be in class.
These kids aren't just playing harmless hooky — mischievous Ferris Buellers raising hell on their occasional day off. O'Connell has one of the highest truancy rates in a city where cutting class is an epidemic. Count them: 4,800 kids, or about 11 percent of the entire San Francisco Unified School District's enrollment, had at least 10 absences last school year without bothering to give an excuse. Not only does that cost the school district millions each year in state funding tied to daily attendance, but experts know truancy is usually a student's first step down the path to dropping out. Statistics show dropouts are more likely to become criminals and victims of crime.
Last summer, the civil grand jury, an investigative body of civilian volunteers that evaluates problems in local government, issued a report that flunked the school district on its truancy efforts. The report blamed educators for lacking the will to combat the problem: Some teachers had stated they preferred that troubled kids stay home. The report also said that schools kept no statistics to measure the success of specific anti-truancy methods or to identify the reasons students skipped school in the first place.
School district officials complain the report doesn't reflect the progress made in recent years. For instance, the number of truants dropped last year from 5,400 to 4,800. The district attributes the decline to a series of increasingly serious interventions that now have teeth — the district attorney prosecutes parents of chronically absent youngsters in San Francisco's fledging truancy court. That still doesn't impress Abraham Simmons, an assistant U.S. attorney who served as chair on the grand jury committee that wrote the truancy report.
"What [the school district has] created is a bureaucracy capable of showing a lot of paper to paper over the problem," Simmons says. In the meantime, you don't need a grand jury report to see that even if the school district is making progress, students continue to outfox the adults. There's nothing like a teen with a pot-stuffed pear to make bureaucrats' efforts look ridiculous.
Just minutes after the two boys fled school for their smoke break, a figure in a black jacket approached another popular escape route at O'Connell: the 6 1/2-foot-high gate of the fence that rings the schoolyard. He climbs up and hops over, dropping onto the sidewalk below on all fours. He runs a few paces, but realizes no one is chasing him, and slows to a casual stroll down the block. Gone.
Principal Rick Duber is no fool. He knows O'Connell students jump the fence — but perhaps not how often. When kids climb the fence right in front of him while he's working lunch duty, he tries to coax them down: "John, we see you! Don't do it!" (When John jumps anyway, the school calls the parents, and then deals with the student when he comes back the next day.)
The main reason many students skip class? "Their lives are too encumbered outside," Duber says. He estimates 75 percent of the roughly 600 students qualify for free and reduced-price lunches, many of their parents have two jobs, and some are undocumented. The school sits on the demarcation line between Norteño and Sureño gang turf in the Mission. Duber says the kids usually keep gang issues out of school, but it's hard not to let the fact that most students know someone who's been murdered affect the classroom. Duber made headlines himself recently for a rift with a police officer who didn't alert him before arresting a student in the school's lobby. (The student was a suspect in a gang-related double homicide at a Mission pizzeria last fall.) In such a milieu, you might call Duber an optimist for naming truancy reduction as one of his highest priorities in his first year on the job.
When told about the two kids running out the front door, he groaned, "Oh no. Well, at least they had to sneak because we're really trying to be on them." To that end, absences are reported two to three times a day to the attendance office. Staff members call the parents of truants as often as they can, and the school has instructed the district to schedule robo-calls to homes to report unexcused absences from 6:30 to 8:30 in the evening. Students had figured out that the calls used to come at 6:30 on the nose and were intercepting them. As the attendance secretary, Pat Gamino, puts it: "We gotta be smarter than these kids."