The District of Columbia has named Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, one of its “Main Streets” across the city and the avenue is in the heart of the Congress Heights neighborhood. It is one of the most frequented areas for the community residents, with a familiar strip of storefront businesses, that are a central location for running errands, like paying a bill at Washington Gas or grabbing a sandwich at the MLK Deli.
On May 6th, around 9 a.m., the usual morning bustle was interrupted by gunfire targeted at a group near a bus stop in the 3100 Block of MLK Jr. Avenue SE, after an alleged altercation that began on a Metro bus. Three people were wounded in the shooting, including two 17-year-old Ballou High School students. One was hit in the leg and the other, who was grazed in the foot, ran blocks to Ballou for safety. The third victim, a 20-year old former Ballou student, was struck in the abdomen and collapsed in front of Washington Gas.
Mary Cuthbert, chairwoman of the Advisory Neighborhood Commission 8C, heard the shots while walking to work along Fifth Street and Martin Luther King, only about a half block from the bus stop where the incident took place. In an article about the incident to the Washington Post, she said, “It’s time for parents to step up and take back their children,” Cuthbert said, adding that she will call for a community meeting to discuss safety, students and their morning hangout spot.
Every morning, clusters of young people loiter in front of the carryout and other shops. Many of them are still congregated and dawdling past Ballou’s 8:45 a.m. opening bell, while District of Columbia Public School (DCPS) police officiers are working to get truants back into class. According to a report released by DCPS in January, last school year, about 15,000 DCPS students in pre-kindergarten through high school missed more than 10 days of classes without a valid excuse. Nine thousand of those students missed more than 20 days without an excuse.
The numbers for complete absenteeism, including excused absences, weren’t any better. DCPS officials said last school year nearly 40 percent of students missed at least 18 days of school, considered severe absence associated with academic deficiency.
Truancy has been a noteworthy and long-lived problem for the District, but it has recently become a concern after the disappearance of 8-year old Relisha Rudd and the recent violence involving Ballou students. Rudd, a child known to enjoy school, accumulated 30 absences at Southeast Washington’s Payne Elementary before a school social worker alerted police. In any other school system those numbers would seem unbelievable, but for the District it’s a norm.
D.C. Action for Children, a non-profit dedicated to improving the lives of children through direct service and program management, was hired by the District’s school system to help analyze their school’s attendance data.
According to the Post, DCPS has directed their staff enhancement to those devoted to attacking the absenteeism crisis and “has intensified its focus on attendance as a key element of evaluating schools and principals.” According to the DCPS website, there are signs of betterment, showing that total absenteeism across the District has begun to drop.
Last year Ward councilmember and now Democratic-elect mayoral candidate, Muriel Bowser, victoriously announced the approval of her bill, The Free Transportation for Students Amendment Act. The bill provides all students with free access to Metrobus and DC Circulator and maintained subsidized access to Metrorail.
“Meeting with parents and students in my Ward and throughout the city, I know there are a lot of reasons for chronic truancy,” said Councilmember Bowser on the day of the approval. “Today we made sure that having to pay for transportation isn’t one of them,” she said.
There are also new laws in place that require DC school’s to track and report unexcused absences and must take specific steps once the students reach a specific limit: at five unexcused absences, school staff must hold a meeting for explanation and prevention; at 10 unexcused absences the family must be reported to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency.
Truancy can be a complicated issue, due to the varied places of origin. In the case of young students, parents may have to work and be forced to rely on others to get their children to school. With older students, the child could be frustrated with their incompetence in school and lack the confidence to attend class everyday. In other situations, students may have parents that are chronically ill or even homeless.
As of now school systems, do not publish chronic absence data but they are beginning to study it. There are many scientific studies and scholarly journals that examine the correlation between truancy, violence, economy and community development