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RPS attendance officers’ jobs on chopping block despite crucial need, service

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 3/15/2019, 6 a.m.
With little public attention, the Richmond delegation to the General Assembly joined most Democrats and Republicans last year in voting ...
Breon Eppes

Several members of City Council, including Reva M. Trammell, 8th District, and Kim B. Gray, 2nd District, a former School Board member, issued strong criticism of the Kamras plan after five of the officers appeared before City Council on Monday night to plead for help.

Butler Peterson, an 18-year RPS veteran who has spent five years as an attendance officer, acted as spokesman for the officers, who were notified last week that their jobs were on the chopping block. So far, they have not been told if they can be considered for the liaison positions.

Truancy was always a schools responsibility, but during former Mayor L. Douglas Wilder’s tenure, he sought to give the issue a higher profile and handed it to police, who set up diversion centers and spent time rounding up young people. Interest waned, however, and RPS regained truancy control under Mayor Wilder’s successor, former Mayor Dwight C. Jones.

Mr. Peterson told the council that the officers, now reduced to 17, started the school year as usual, tracking down enrolled students who were on the “no show list” and whose failure to attend not only would hurt their educational prospects, but could result in Richmond losing state funding due to having a smaller student body.

Now they are engaged in the day-to-day task of trying to catch up with students who have missed at least five days without an excuse.

“We conduct home visits in some of the most impoverished and high-crime neighborhoods in the city,” Mr. Peterson said. “We are the boots on the ground. We are a lifeline for these families. We are the heartbeat of RPS.”

He offered examples of the wraparound services and support that attendance officers provide, including ensuring that students in need have clothes to wear and that families are connected with services that the parents never knew existed or didn’t know how to contact.

Mr. Peterson recounted how an attendance team saved one bullied student from hanging herself and how others got three elementary students back to class after they were found panhandling on Midlothian Turnpike at the behest of parents who needed money to support drug habits.

One officer, he said, checks daily to ensure that youths who have cut classes are not playing on railroad tracks on South Side to keep them from getting killed.

“We see it all,” said attendance officer Breon Eppes, including teens who are defying parents and neglected young children whose parents are indifferent to education.

Rather than acting as police officers, Mr. Peterson said he and his colleagues spend most of their efforts building relationships with parents and the children, and they regularly get calls from other people concerned about children they know should be in school.

He said the attendance team rarely takes parents to court for failing to ensure their children attend class, and only in cases where parents are deliberately keeping their children out of school.

Mr. Peterson called on City Council to find funding to keep the attendance officers employed “so we can continue to make a difference. If we aren’t there, who will do what we do? There won’t be anyone. Our department is critical to enforcing the attendance policy for RPS.”

Ms. Gray, who is considering offering budget language that would block RPS from eliminating the attendance officers, agreed.

“The work of the attendance officers is crucial,” Ms. Gray told her council colleagues.

She said she personally has seen the impact attendance officers make and cannot fathom how any responsible member of the School Board would want to eliminate staff who go where others fear to tread to find students and get them back in school.

Ms. Trammell also found it incomprehensible that the school system would lay off all of the attendance officers. She said that attendance officers often are the ones to respond to problems involving children.

“This is not right,” she said.