Feb. 2, 2005 - To 39 students, the message came across as clearly as if it were written in chalk. Go to school.

Thirty-nine truants - including one from Mountain View Middle School and two from Amphitheater Junior High - were arrested during a recent sweep.

The surprise checkup was organized by the Pima County Attorney's office, the third of four scheduled sweeps during the 2004-05 school year. The Jan. 20 sweep focused on the Tucson, Vail, Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells, Tanque Verde, Amphitheater and Sunnyside districts. No students from the Foothills district were arrested.

Some 23 officers went to familiar hookie haunts - malls, bus stops, video arcades, desert areas, convenience stores - and also made 78 home visits, explained Gene Bertie, director of the county attorney's Abolish Chronic Truancy Now program.

"They seem to know where these kids hang out," Bertie said of the officers, which included three from Marana Police Department plus probation, school resource and truancy officers from throughout the county. Officers were assigned to check on truants in their local areas.

"They go back to their own area and work because they're comfortable, they know where the kids are, they know the schools. They can go in and talk to the schools and say, 'Hey, who's missing today that's a problem child?'" Bertie said.

Middle schoolers tend to be the largest offenders - accounting for two-thirds of the Jan. 20 sweep.

"You've got hormones raging, you've got all this other stuff going on," Bertie said. Middle schoolers "test the system, they push the system, they push their parents."

The youngest student arrested during the sweep was a 12-year-old. Bertie said truants rarely are elementary-aged, although five were arrested during the office's November 2004 truancy sweep.

"Rarely do you find a 6, 7, 8-year-old out on the street," he continued. "Where we see the majority of that younger age, the fourth, fifth, sixth graders, is at home."

The same holds true for older students, who Bertie said often can be found at home. This is why the truancy sweeps include home checks as well as visits to places where truants hang out.

"We've found in the past that a lot of kids for a number of reasons are at home," Bertie said. "They're still asleep because they didn't go to bed until 3 o'clock in the morning or whatever reason."

Sgt. Tim Brunenkant, Marana Police Department spokesman, said his three officers assigned to the sweep made 15 home visits but no arrests.

"They didn't concentrate on kids that had excessive absences or excessive unexcused absences, just maybe one or two," he said. "They got a lot of excuses like 'Oh, I forgot to call the school,' 'I forgot to call in sick for him or her.'"

However, Bertie said the overall sweep focused on students who met and exceeded the county statute definition of habitual truancy, which is five or more unexcused absences in a year. The sweep largely targeted students with 10 or more unexcused absences.

Bertie explained that truancy is a status offense, meaning the students' status as a minor makes truancy a crime, which it would not be for an adult.

The 39 arrested students received paper referrals, essentially tickets for youth. Just as a speeder signing a traffic ticket agrees to go to court and resolve the matter, paper referrals must be signed by a parent, who must contact juvenile court within 48 hours.

About half of the students were handed over immediately to their parents, who likely were present when the officers arrived, Bertie said. The other half were brought to other locations, such as the sheriff's office or a police office, and had to be picked up by their parents.

Bertie justified the expense of using 92 man hours - 23 officers for four hours - to arrest children for skipping school by saying it was a precautionary measure to keep children in school and prevent crime.

"One of the things that we have found through study after study after study is that truancy is the leading indicator of future criminal activity," Bertie said. "If they're not in school, what are they doing? Are they getting in trouble? Some of them do. Some of them just go home and sleep, but they're not getting their education."

With Pima County recording some 5,000 dropouts last year, the number of dropouts can quickly accumulate, he continued.

"In four years, you've got 20,000 dropouts, you've got a small city. We've got a small city of young people out there that may not be able to function to the best of their ability and that's as good a reason as I can think of to break this learned behavior and get these kids back in school."

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