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Concern over police partnership leaves York City schools truancy grant up in air

(Logo) empty classroom, truancy. York City School District has struggled with student truancy issues, recently remarking a need for more school attendance officers. The district is considering a grant-funded partnership with York City Police for a truancy officer to help with particularly difficult cases.

York City School District might walk away from about $90,000 in state and private grants because several school board members aren't sold on a partnership with York City Police that would assign a new truancy officer to the district. 

Recently, the school district was awarded about $60,000 from the state Department of Education for the proposed partnership between the district and police. City police received about $30,000 from the York County Bar Association for the initiative.

The money instead should be used to hire another attendance officer, a district employee tasked with finding truant students, said board member Carman Bryant on Monday, Jan. 13.

"If we got that kind of money, we need to hire somebody and put them in our district and pay them, not another officer," board member Arleta Riviera said.

But the state's portion couldn't be used to fund a new district position, said Superintendent Andrea Berry. 

The police department and the school district would be part of a grant-funded Juvenile Violence Truancy Initiative — covered by the grant money awarded to each.

The state grant does not require a local match, district officials said. 

But the lack of consensus leaves the question of whether the district will accept the state cash in doubt. 

More:York City schools ask for public opinion with tough decisions ahead

Further debate on the proposed partnership with York City Police is expected Wednesday, Jan. 22. The school board could also vote on whether to accept the state grant and move forward with the initiative.

If school board members do not ultimately approve the grant and partnership with city police, it would be the second time a York County school board refused state money.

York Suburban School District recently turned down a grant of about $330,000 when its board decided against hiring school police officers.

More:York Suburban rejects state cash for school police officers

York City's initiative would run through May 30, 2021, focusing on students in grades seven to 12, particularly those repeatedly absent or involved in criminal activity.

Officer Derek Hartman, the York City Police spokesman, said the initiative would not create a new position but rather fund the salary for an existing officer.

Police would work with the district's attendance officers for support and outreach opportunities related to the city's Group Violence Initiative, an offshoot of the national Group Violence Intervention initiative.

"These are like our heavy hitters that may have records and that require a little bit more of a muscle," Berry said of the need for a police presence.

York City Police have "arbitrary proposed outcomes" based on known truancy issues in the city, which includes a 12% truancy reduction, but increasing arrests is not the goal, according to the agreement, attached to Monday's board agenda.

The primary focus is connecting families with social services for prevention, with arrests being a last resort, the agreement states.

When it comes to grants, however, there's always a question of what will happen when the grant money runs out. York City School District has been under a state-mandated financial recovery plan since 2012 and cannot afford to fund another position.

The district last spring reported that it would need to recover 75 high school students by year's end to restore $1.2 million in per-student spending and reduce a $6.38 million deficit.

More:York City district aims to recover 75 students with 'aggressive outreach' campaign

Berry said with burgeoning interest in juvenile justice, she thinks the grant will likely be renewed. But even if it's not, the district's practice is to put a stipulation on all grant-funded positions noting that those positions will dissolve when the grants do.

But Bryant questioned why the district would even approve the grant if the attendance officers can already do the same work.

"I know for a fact, working as an attendance officer, there were not many kids we could not find," she said, questioning what more this police officer could do.

Lulu Thomas, the district's director of pupil personnel services, said sometimes it's difficult to reach those students who have been discharged from the justice system or an alternative placement because agencies don't always communicate about releases.

For students with individualized education plans, the district is held accountable if they don't come back, and "we always don’t have people to help us do that deep dive," Linda Brown, assistant superintendent for special education, said of finding those students.

"This is our effort to say, 'hey, we’re gonna try to get some help in that department,'" Berry said, even though the district can't afford another attendance officer.

"Since we have the grant, we’re not about giving up free money," board member Michael Breeland said.