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Scoring Our Schools: Columbus' dwindling fight against truancy

Officers who serve with the Columbus Police Truancy Unit will soon receive word of new assignments as city leaders shift resources (WSYX/WTTE)

City leaders are taking a step back in their approach to community policing, as seven officers in the police department’s truancy unit will soon receive notice they’ll have new assignments.

The Columbus Police Department will abolish the once 10-officer unit in order to create a new computer forensics team, ABC 6/FOX 28 confirmed. Police described it as “critically needed.”

The Truancy Unit was created about ten years ago when the city tried to stop a growing number of daytime burglaries. They found a significant amount of their suspects were kids who were skipping school.

ABC 6/FOX 28 followed the unit in April when officers focused their efforts near Briggs High School. Within an hour time frame, cameras caught a half-dozen school-aged kids out of school. When caught, officers verify who the students are, how many times they’ve been stopped for truancy, and then determine whether to take the kids back to class, a YMCA Truancy Center, or another agency.

Last December, Quentin Smith, 16, was killed while he was truant and sitting with friends in a car on South Eureka Avenue off West Broad Street. Two gunmen shot up the car and a home nearby at 9:30am.

Columbus Police Sergeant Stevan Brown said the Truancy Unit saves lives.

"Even if a kid is not out committing a crime, they could be a victim of crime like human trafficking, motor vehicle accidents, exposed to drugs," said Sgt. Brown. “The greatest asset we have in the world is not money, not power, it's not physical things. It's our kids."

In the first quarter of this year, the truancy unit has picked up 40 students near Briggs High School. For both South and Walnut Ridge High Schools, the number of kids is almost 80. Despite that, administrators at the Columbus Division of Police noted a decline in truancy arrests by the unit. Out of 660 stops this school year, 48 kids were charged. That's about 20 percent of the number of students charged in the 2013-14 school year, which was 581. Police Chief Kim Jacobs decided to cut the unit to provide resources to a new computer forensics unit which will need at least $500,000 for equipment, software and personnel.

In an email to ABC 6/FOX 28, a spokesperson for Columbus City Schools praised the Truancy Unit's efforts but states,

"In recent years, our schools have recognized that a more effective way to address chronic absenteeism isn't necessarily found in catching a student on the street but in working with the family at home to better understand why the child isn't coming to school. When a student is chronically late or absent, our principals actively bring together a team (which includes the family) to investigate and develop ways to address the barriers that the student might face.

We've also stopped the old practice of punishing truant students with out of school suspensions. We want them IN school.

Perhaps as a sign of progress, we've seen a measured decrease in the number of truancy cases filled in Juvenile Court, dropping from more than 700 filings last year to only 300 so far this year. Also, our average daily attendance numbers are improving, up from 89% last year to 91% this year district-wide. There is still a lot of work to do but the needle is moving in the right direction."

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