Starting today, playing hooky in Philadelphia is about to get more expensive.
City Council yesterday unanimously passed an ordinance that would slap a $25 fine on the parents of school-age children found wandering the city between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. on school days.
The measure - endorsed by the school district and the Police Department - gives any city law-enforcement officer the authority to obtain the name, age, and address of the youth caught skipping school and of his or her parent or legal guardian. The officer will then issue a violation to the truant child, and a notice will be mailed to the household.
"The idea of this is not to be punitive, but to get the parents' attention that their kids are sometimes not going to school," said Councilman William Greenlee, sponsor of the bill with Curtis Jones Jr.
Violation of the daytime curfew would be a summary offense. Parents of repeat violators would face $300 fines.
The daytime curfew will supplement state law and a longstanding city anti-truancy program.
On any given day, 7,500 of the school district's 167,000 students are truant, officials said. The students can be at home, roaming shopping areas, or loitering on the streets.
Yesterday's measure grew out of 2008 hearings about safety on public transit following a spate of violent incidents involving teenagers.
The ordinance, which is based on a curfew program in Baltimore, was supported by the school district and Mayor Nutter, who said the measure was needed to supplement existing laws.
Across the country, daytime curfews are becoming more popular, in large cities and in suburbs. Dallas is considering a curfew. Elsewhere, home-school families have opposed curfew legislation.
The ordinance City Council approved exempts home-schooled students. Also, children who are with their parents, are heading to work or medical appointments, or have written permission are not subject to the penalties.
Yesterday at the Gallery, a hangout for truants, Janie Scott, 28, a single mother who acknowledged that she and her siblings played hooky as youngsters, said she believed the law was unfair.
"My parents tried everything to get us to school," she said. "I can see the fine if the parents just sit back and aren't doing anything, but there is a limit to what they can do."
Tasha Harris, 17, a junior at Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in Kensington, called the new law stupid.
"It shouldn't matter if a kid skips school sometimes," she said. "They have problems at home with their parents, and they cut school to get away from everything.
"The parents have nothing to do with it," Harris said. "We're teenagers. Most teens don't listen to their moms."
Harris' classmate Ebony Dozier, also 17, said that if youths cut school, "the kids should be fined."
During a Council hearing last week, Francis Pombar, deputy chief of attendance and truancy for the school district, said the daytime curfew had the power to "significantly bolster the elimination of truant activity in our city."
The district conducts truancy sweeps every weekday morning when school is in session. The decade-old program involves several law-enforcement agencies, including school police officers, uniformed officers from SEPTA, and city police, who target designated areas looking for truants.
School-age youths who are not in school between 9 and 11:30 a.m. are rounded up, placed on SEPTA buses, and driven to district truancy-support centers. Their parents are notified.
Gregory Patton, who coordinates the sweeps for the district, told Council last week that 35,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade were picked up during the 2007-08 academic year.
Despite last month's cold weather, he said, the program set a record: 7,000 students were picked up.
The parents received warning letters, and students could be required to attend Saturday detention programs. The district refers chronic truants to truancy courts, which are operated through a program with Family Court.
Under state law, parents of chronic truants can be fined up to $300, plus court costs. They also could be sent to jail for up to five days and required to perform up to six months' community service, and could risk losing custody of their child.
During testimony in support of the ordinance, Lori Shorr, Nutter's chief education officer, told Council that although the city's anti-truancy program has been in effect for years, "there is widespread agreement that it does not fully address the multitude of reasons for truancy and does not fully engage parents until the problems become severe."
Both Greenlee and Jones said yesterday that the new ordinance would target what Jones referred to as "the occasional hooky artist."
"Were getting the kid who's not a bad kid, who just decides he's going to play hooky that day," Greenlee said.
Representatives of the Police Department testified last week in favor of the curfew.
Yesterday, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, contacted in Washington, where he was attending a conference, said he was not sure how effective the truancy law would be.
"I've not seen exactly what passed," the commissioner said. "I've not had a chance to find the rationale behind this, other than getting attention of the parents."
On that issue, he agrees.
"It has to be the parent's responsibility, not the government's. . . . Households that are dysfunctional - it will be a question of how much willingness there is."