The "Truancy Guys" from the Fort Bend Sheriff's Office include (l to r) Deputy Jerome Ellis, Juvenile Outreach Coordinator Dennis McAfee and Corporal Roger Barton.
They’re called the “Truancy Guys.”
The brainchild of Dennis McAfee, the Juvenile Outreach Coordinator for the Fort Bend County Sheriff’s Office, the Truancy Abatement Program began 13 years ago with a mission to keep kids in school. The program, which reached 24,000 students in the 2010-2011 school year, includes an education component for students, teachers and administrators; home visits; curfew checks; and truancy sweeps.
“Truancy is the gateway to delinquency,” said McAfee, who earned Bachelor and Master’s Degrees from Sam Houston State University. “That’s the battle.”
The program, one of the few operated by a Sheriff’s Office in Texas, is a collaborative effort among the Sheriff, the Fort Bend Partnership for Youth, Fort Bend County Juvenile Probation, and other local law enforcement agencies. The Truancy Guys work with Fort Bend ISD, Lamar CISD, Needville ISD, Stafford MSD, Brazos ISD, Katy ISD and the St. Laurence Catholic School system.
“I recognized the need many years ago when we noticed the number of daytime burglaries and criminal mischief cases involved so many juveniles,” said Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright. “Our initial goal was to reduce the number of kids without supervision on the street, which is now shown by the dramatic reduction in daytime burglaries and criminal mischief cases.”
Wright recalls the first time a multi-agency truancy sweep was conducted.
“The first year, Dennis did it by himself,” Wright said. “The next year, we made 130 contacts in one day with numerous agencies involved. The next time we made a sweep that number was cut in half, and the third time, it was down to three contacts. It was at that point we expanded the program to work with juveniles in the school systems to make it a more full-time effort,” he said.
During the 2010-2011, Fort Bend County juvenile outreach officers made 321 presentations in 94 area schools from elementary to high school. They assisted Juvenile Probation in 1,255 daytime school and night-time home curfew checks, contacting 924 juveniles on probation. They also made 64 home contacts for Lamar CISD and Stafford MSD and assisted in 41 Directives to Apprehend, the equivalent of warrants for juvenile offenders.
Corporal Roger Barton and Deputy Jerome Ellis are the current “Truancy Guys.” They want children to remain in school and they want students to stay out of trouble by attending class.
“We have to make our presentations age-appropriate,” said Ellis. “If they’re 10years old, they’ll get one message. When they get older, the message has to change because we face different questions. But we’re bringing the truth to them in a style that fits their age. Sixth graders and above are into relationships; they face drugs or other issues, so our message has to fit the age. We have to stay current with the law and also on what these kids are doing.”
The team of juvenile officers also organized eight truancy sweeps during the school year, using police officers, school personnel, constables and others to search neighborhoods, storage facilities and restaurants for kids who should be in school. The sweeps resulted in 167 juveniles being investigated for truancy.
“When school officials are having trouble with kids, an ‘official presence’ – someone who has a badge – can make a difference,” Barton said. “We give students resource manuals to get them help. If they need clothes, let’s go to Second Mile Mission or some of the other clothes outlets. Pregnant? Lamar CISD has a great program for students who are pregnant. They may not know about these resources.”
To help drive the message home, the Fort Bend Partnership for Youth produced two booklets “Now That You’re Ten,” and “Before It’s Too Late,” illustrating the consequences students may face in the juvenile justice system. These booklets are part of the Truancy Guys’ presentations to fourth- and fifth-graders.
“Today, I am here to teach you, but if you choose to break the law I may be back to arrest you,” said Barton. “We tell them what will happen to them if they break the law. On the other hand, we want them to know that we care for them and we will do anything to protect them.”
The Truancy Guys make house calls, too. At the parents’ request in LCISD and Stafford MSD, they’ll visit a home, talk to students and parents, identify problems, offer advice, and make referrals to resources within the county.
“When you see those kids, you realize you may be the only positive influence they face in their lives,” Ellis said. “Everyone can remember the last exchange they had with a police officer. We have to give them a positive outlook, something that breathes hope and structure.”
McAfee is proud of the program and the deputies selected for the job. “Can you tell we’ve got the right guys for the job?”
For more information about this program visit www.co.fort-bend.tx.us : go to Sheriff’s Office/Community Services Division/ Truancy Abatement Program or call 281-341-4681.