Electronic Bracelets Track Kids Who Skip School Electronic monitoring ankle bracelets are used across the country to keep track of repeat criminal offenders. Now, a Texas high school is employing the technology to keep tabs on students who have a history of truancy. Guests and callers weigh in on using the same methods for tracking kids and criminals.
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Electronic Bracelets Track Kids Who Skip School

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Electronic monitoring is used to keep track of repeat offenders accused of everything from sex crimes to auto theft but kids who skip school? Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, Texas, is one of a number of schools that uses GPS monitors to keep track of students with a history of truancy. We'll talk with somebody who supervises that program in just a minute.

But first, we have a question for you. If you're a parent or a teacher concerned about truancy, does this seem like a good idea to you? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org, and you can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. Joining us by phone from the principal's office at Bryan Adams High School is Kyle Ross. He coordinates alternative education at the school. Thanks very much for being with us.

Dr. KYLE ROSS (Alternative Education Coordinator, Bryan Adams High School): Yes.

CONAN: First of all, tell us how this technology works. Does the student actually wear an ankle bracelet?

Dr. ROSS: Well, it's actually - a year ago, we started - we punted the program here a year ago, and we had a device at the time that was an ankle bracelet, and it was connected electronically to a box, a very large box, that they wore on their belt that could not be separated from one another. So that was the original set up with the equipment itself.

Since then, we've had to take a look at the equipment because we did have some concerns about it looking as though, you know, putting a box on kids and a monitor that way looked too criminal for kids that were on truancy charges. So we backed up, and we took a look at it. And we came up with the technology and with some companies that - it now looks like, essentially, it looks like a cell phone. It's a little bit larger than a cell phone, and it fits on their belt.

And of course, we allow the kids this year- we didn't know how that would go because originally, kids could be identified quickly just by seeing this apparatus on them. This year, the kids can actually put it in their backpack, and we found that we actually are getting the same results with it.

CONAN: And you're getting the same results with it?

Dr. ROSS: Yes, which we did not know until we tried it.

CONAN: I'm sure some people were skeptical when this program was first broached.

Dr. ROSS: Myself included. You know, I've worked with these kids a long time. We do anything we can in the public schools. We're trying to create an atmosphere where these kids can feel safe, where these kids will come to school, where we can motivate them to want to be successful, and if we don't have them here, there's not much we can do with them.

So kids that I actually have known, that I've worked with, show up with these boxes and the monitors ordered by the judge at the time. I'm at - I'm just curious, and I'm talking to them. But some of the side effects that - the real positive things that have come out of it, including the potential things that we can do with the box, in terms of having the parents involved in any kind of curfews, requests, and things like that, there's all kinds of possibilities.

What the kids experience, they originally thought, oh, my gosh, you know. The gig is up, and they have to comply. Now, what they found was that now, they're in close proximity to parents, and they're having to stay home at night. So being around their family a lot more than they're used to - they also had last year, we put the mandatory - the judge ordered mandatory parenting classes, which gave these parents skills and communication skills. And the consistent thing we hear is they've gotten much closer to their family. The parents have an opportunity now to start to see them and trust them.

It even goes beyond that. If we talk to the kids here in the school, and I've talked to many of them, and some of them are pretty profound. I've had one kid I've worked with for a long time that was a gang leader when he started out his freshmen year, and he will be graduating this year. And he has been able to leave that behind, and he will tell you himself that one of the main things that helped him go ahead and make a decision to go ahead and come to school and do the right thing was when they put the monitor on him, that he wasn't going to do anything to violate that because he didn't want to be locked up.

CONAN: You said an important word, a judge. These are all...

Dr. ROSS: These are all - they go to the criminal - I mean, the juvenile court system, where the judge here, Judge Chavez, has been real supportive of this. It gives him an opportunity more than just maybe order up a boot camp or fines. It gives him some leeway. He can put these monitors on the kids, and it has much more of a rehabilitative appeal to the parents.

CONAN: And with the judge involved...

Dr. ROSS: Yes.

CONAN: Presumably this doesn't happen...

Dr. ROSS: That's right.

CONAN: After the first time the kid skips school.

Dr. ROSS: If the judge violate - I mean, if the kid violates this, the judge can - he can have them fined. He can have them locked up. What it does, it puts a program that we can work with the kids between them and the more severe consequences.

CONAN: And - but I was saying before, presumably, they have to have a track record of truancy before this ends up in court.

Dr. ROSS: Absolutely. Yes. Look there's a variety of things. We take a close look at it. We're trying to find how we can use this, and what types of ways we can use this where it's actually more effective. The judge himself - we would put the kids into categories by how serious their truancy was. And now, the kids last year that were put into it were kids who we considered like a level three or four, where they had real severe truancy. Where we're talking about many, many, many days out of school, where, you know, there was absolutely going to be no chance of them being successful or graduating.

They put the monitors on those kids, and we had up to about 90 - we kept real good data on this the entire time. There's a - the guy who was the brainchild behind this, Dr. Pottinger, he set this up like a research project and did it with - like a pilot, so we kept the data and kept it accurate. And we had a 98-percent improvement in truancy. These didn't miss any school.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on this conversation, and we'll start with April, April's with us from Miami in Florida.

Dr. ROSS: OK.

CONAN: April, are you there? Hello, April? I guess it's already May. Let's see if we can go instead to Patricia, Patricia in Norman, Oklahoma.

PATRICIA (Caller): Hello.

Dr. ROSS: Hi.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

PATRICIA: I saw this article that spoke briefly on a report on the news, on TV, and I am in agreement with it. I have a friend who is suffering greatly. Her family is suffering greatly from multiple problems because the truancy, you know, goes along with a lot of other behaviors, as your guest is pointing out, drug use and family turmoil, you know, violence.

I think that something like this kind of - it's like a zero tolerance, you know. You're immediately placed or, you know, considered responsible, and you're immediately caught in the action, if you will. And sometimes I think some kids like this do need that. They need a very consistent, you know, line in the sand where they're not allowed to be.

CONAN: Patricia, it sounds like you wish your friend's daughter had this kind of choice.

PATRICIA: Yes, I do because I love him. I care about him.

CONAN: Her son, I'm sorry, yes.

PATRICIA: Yes, my son's - it's one of my son's friends, and, for awhile now, we've had to prohibit their visitation and their friendship because I can't put my son at risk.

CONAN: Kyle Ross, do you think Patricia's point is proved out there at Bryan Adams High School?

Dr. ROSS: Well, we're well aware of this. This is a problem across our country. We experience it, you know, in an urban school setting. We're doing everything we can to put these kids in an environment where they're around things that aren't going to distract them into some real serious crime or drugs.

It's a combination of things that - our campus here has made some major changes. We have a very safe school now. And we've been able to get the gang activity, and any kind of drug and gang, it's out of our school now. I'm not saying it doesn't exist in Dallas, but it's out of our school. Well, what that does is, when we can get kids coming to school, they're safe here. A lot of times, gangs is about protection, and when they're here at school, now we have their attention.

Now, our next job is to get them caught up. That's the main issues and main mission we're on now. Not just caught up, but we want them to stay caught up, and then our mission ultimately is to get them to move up. We want our kids to be able to get out and be successful in careers. Now, to go from not coming to school at all, on the streets, smoking weed, getting into trouble to graduating, that's everything everybody wants. But the truth is, kids that we've put on this monitoring system, we actually are seeing that. We have evidence now.

CONAN: Patricia, thanks for the call, and we wish your son's friend the best of luck.

PATRICIA: Thank you.

CONAN: OK, bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Mary, Mary's with us from Fairfield in California.

MARY (Caller): Yes, hi. I was just - it arouses all sorts of thoughts, but I guess the one I'll center on is the message we give to kids. That concerns me. It gives them the message, in my own opinion, that hey, you're serving time. You know, it's like for an offence. You're going to school for an offence. You're serving time.

If you want to get out, the parole officer will be tailing you, and graduation is just a successful meeting with your parole board. You did your time, now you're out. How does that affect their identity and prep them for the identity of citizens? And will it be an attitude of, well, we monitor you for your own good, and we did it in school, and now we do it outside school and now with the employer. I just don't like the message.

CONAN: Dr. Ross?

Dr. ROSS: Yes, well, what we're looking at - absolutely, I understand what you're saying. And of course, that's a great concern of mine also. It depends on the people you put any kind of technology, you know - if you're going to put this in peoples' hands, what is their philosophy? And that's what's really important.

We take a look at that in terms of a program. Now, we absolutely never want them with us. It's what's in the child's best interests. What's the greater good. We are not about to promote kids that's going to be - anything that's going to be harmful to them, like putting them on a (unintelligible). But we're saying a monitor here. It looks like a cell phone. We're not talking about an ankle bracelet. But...

CONAN: But I assume the kids in that school have learned to recognize that cell - that particular cell phone very quickly.

Dr. ROSS: Yes. Well, the thing that I'm going to be real sensitive to, because I worked with these kids a long time, is the very thing that the caller's saying. If this is going to be harmful, I'm going to be against it, but, in fact, it's quite the opposite consistently - is these kids will sit and look you straight in the eye, and they say this really helped me. This helped me make a decision.

Now, it is very distinguishable from somebody who's put on probation, OK. It's handled differently. We have - there's a program manager by the company that they will follow the kids, and they go visit with the kids. I came out of a correctional - I used to work for the Department of Justice as a psychologist, and I can understand, you know, what she's talking about. We don't want to treat our kids like criminals. What we want to do is, we want kids to stop the behaviors that are harmful to themselves, so we can help them. And essentially, that's what this monitor has done.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call.

MARY: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're talking about the use of GPS monitors on serial truants in high school. You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get another caller in. This is Dan, Dan with us also from Miami in Florida.

DAN (Caller): Yes, how are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

DAN: Good. Just a short comment, you know. In listening to this segment and the previous segment, it often amazes me that people do not, a lot of the listeners, as well as, you know, others not listening, are not really looking at what the numbers show in regards to progress of these students, for example, in this program. In the previous segment that you did regarding learning Arabic in schooling, I mean, people can see that as a fear for our country, but at the same time, those same people that have those Arabic and other languages that are going to help this country become a strong country from a security point of view. They bring valuable tools to the table.

I myself dropped out of high school after sophomore year because I realized I was spending more time across the street at Dairy Queen having an ice cream and smoking a cigarette and talking garbage with friends instead of doing what I should have been doing, which was in school. I made up for it later. I entered college and got through that at the age of 29, but I think I would have enjoyed seeing some type of program at my school way back in the '80s that would have helped me to, you know, stick it, be part of it, and I needed somebody that was looking at me and monitoring me. That's my comment.

CONAN: Alright Dan, thanks very much. Let's see if we can get to Steve, and Steve's with us from San Antonio in Texas.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to share my thoughts of this. I read an article about it, and it seems like this is a complete big-brother move, honestly, taking responsibility away from parents and putting it in the hands of, you know, of people that, you know, don't really have the responsibility as far as telling these kids how to live. The parents should be the ones telling the kids how, you know, to go to school, to be better people. I mean, you know...

CONAN: Steve, did you...

STEVE: And another thing is an article I read that was talking about this said that they're going to actually be watching kids, not only during school hours, but up until nine p.m. in the evening. So, you know, what's the purpose of this? I don't see how it makes, you know, anybody safer, any - you know, honestly, I'm glad I'm not going to high school . I mean, you know, right now, I mean, there are so many encroachments on the parents right now that it's just, you know, ridiculous. I don't know what's worse, this or having security cams in high school, you know, public high school bathrooms.

CONAN: One controversy at a time, Steve.

STEVE: Yeah.

CONAN: Why don't we get a reaction from Kyle Ross. Big brother and taking rights away from parents?

Dr. ROSS: I hear what he's saying. Listen, what we all need, what's needed desperately is for parents to be involved and not just to stop there. We need our communities involved. We - you know, when I watch the "Extreme Home Makeover" on television, I say to myself, that's the way things are supposed to be right there.

Now, what the program has done from the outset, I understand that's what it would appear. Now, here is the results. Here is what's really going on. The parents really like this program. Now, we don't - these monitors don't go on kids just anybody. They go on kids who are in a destructive habitual truancy mode.

CONAN: Kids who are in court.

Dr. ROSS: Well, and not just that. We're talking about nine of 10 kids, it's not about just truancy. They're going to be involved in things that they should not be involved in. Essentially, I like the caller that mentioned before about, you know, essentially, we're looking at trying to create good stories. And we're watching - I'm watching kids all the time that I'm - in the past, they're heading for tragedies.

And so the evidence that I have seen now entering our second year and having about 60 kids go through this is 90 - I don't know any casualties. I see and consistently have from the kids themselves and the parents saying nothing but positive things about how it's given them an opportunity to take these stories, to help their kids move their lives in the right direction.

CONAN: We just...

Dr. ROSS: They have the responsibility to keep it going.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. Steve, thanks very much for the call. Do you think that this is going to become more widespread?

Dr. ROSS: Is that? I'm sorry.

CONAN: That's to you, Kyle Ross, yes.

Dr. ROSS: OK. Well, you know, I'm concerned - what I look at is, I look at our campus. Widespread? I think - I can't see it anything but becoming widespread if it works. If something's going to work, like I said before, it's real important in the philosophy of the people who are using any kind of technology or any programs, it's got to be about what's the honest result here. Are our kids benefitting from it?

CONAN: And I'm afraid we're out of time right there, but thank you very much, Kyle Ross, who coordinates alternative education at Bryan Adams High School in East Dallas, Texas. This is NPR News.

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