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TODAY’S TOPIC: School Calls to Parents Keep Track of Kids

January 13, 1986

ROANOKE, Va. (AP) _ A computer at William Fleming High School dials a parent’s telephone and says, ″Your son or daughter was not in school for the second period. If you are unaware of this absence, please call your son’s or daughter’s dean or assistant principal.″

Originally designed to combat truancy, such computer systems now are helping schools in Roanoke and other Virginia cities comply with a new state law designed to give authorities a jump on child abductions. Each school is required to notify the parents of all absent children each day, unless a parent has already called the school.

Legislatures in Alabama, Colorado, Massachussetts, Montana and Rhode Island have joined Virginia in passing school callback laws, said Janet Kosid of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Legislation is being considered in Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Utah.

The Adam Walsh Child Resource Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been advocating such laws.

″If you have a child who rides the bus or walks to school and never makes it, the parents don’t find out until six hours later,″ said Sharon McMorris, the center’s assistant director. ″Several abduction cases have occurred with children on their way to school.″

Virginia’s law went into effect this school year, and officials haven’t reported any cases where an absence turned out to be an abduction. Many large districts already were contacting parents of absentees, particularly in high schools, to improve attendance.

The new law has prompted those districts to expand their procedures, while some small ones are setting up systems for making calls for the first time.

Officials are encouraging parents to call school if they know their child will be absent.

Don Sutton, supervisor for educational systems at Roanoke schools, said computers are used to make calls only in the high schools, where enrollment is high enough to make it financially practical. District employees are calling parents in middle and elementary schools. Roanoke’s enrollment is 14,510.

In Cumberland County, where the enrollment is 1,450, school employees are making all the calls themselves, said Assistant Superintendent Pauline DePew. That’s been manageable so far, she said, but officials are concerned about accomplishing the task during the first big flu outbreak.

School officials say their procedures aren’t foolproof. Sometimes phones are busy, or a parent isn’t at the number left with the school. Some parents don’t have phones.

Ms. Kosid, director of legal-technical assistance for the Washington-based missing children’s center, said the drawback to most callback legislation is that states don’t help pay for it. She said programs tend to work better when they are started voluntarily by school districts, as is being done in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

Callback legislation is not a top priority for Ms. Kosid’s organization or the Adam Walsh Child Resource Center, a non-profit group that fights child abduction and molestation.

Ms. Kosid said states could achieve much more by setting up programs to educate children about preventing abduction or by passing strong parental kidnapping laws. Ms. McMorris said her organization is working for mandatory criminal background checks for teachers and others who deal with children.

Although some Virginia school officials said the callback requirement is a burden, many thought it would be valuable in increasing attendance and school contact with parents as well as learning early about an abduction.

″In recent memory of the city, we haven’t had an occurrence of a kidnapping, so the law may not be a significant benefit to us,″ said William Myers, director of instructional services for Chesapeake schools.

″But if anybody has a problem, if you’re talking about a life, that’s significant. If you save one life a year in Virginia - or in 10 years - I suppose it’s worth the time. How do you put a monetary value on a life?″

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