MPS Tracks Down Truant Students With Help From Community Partners

May 11, 2016

It’s day three of our WUWM’s “Getting There” series exploring the issue of truancy in Milwaukee’s public schools. Yesterday, we heard what other cities are trying to get kids to school. Today, we learn more about what’s happening in MPS.

Since the early 1990s, MPS has partnered with the Milwaukee Police Department and Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee to run an initiative called TABS. It stands for “Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression.”

The structure of TABS is fairly simple.

A team of police officers patrols neighborhoods for kids who should be in school. If the cops find any, they scoop up the kids in their big, black-and-white MPD van, and take them to the nearest TABS location – one on the city’s north side, and one on the south side. There, MPS social workers meet the kids to ask what they’ve been up to, and why they’re not in school.

The goal is to talk about attendance patterns and uncover issues that may be preventing students from going back to school. Site coordinators can also refer or connect kids and their families to any resources that might help. Once the kids wrap up their conversations, they’re transported back to school by MPD officers.

The Rogers Street Boys & Girls Club houses TABS’ south side location. The room for truant kids is in the basement, right next to Walter Goodwyn’s office.

"Truancy is the symptom. But if we peel back the layers, we'll find out that it's socioeconomic, bullying -- heck, they deal with home things, they didn't eat. There's a lot of different things that causes truancy, it just shows up as truancy." - Walter Goodwyn

Goodwyn is the director of dropout prevention services for the Boys & Girls Clubs. He’s directed the TABS program for the last three years.

“We do want it to be a place where they’re somewhat comfortable in that they realize we’re on your side, we’re here to help you,” Goodwyn explains, before opening the door to the TABS room.

Turns out, the room is quiet, and small. The walls are painted powder blue. Three teenagers - all male, all African American - are just sitting in metal folding chairs, watching ESPN on a television in the corner. A policeman sits at a desk nearby, filling out paperwork. Three women – TABS staff and social workers – occupy cubicles off to the side, shuffling papers of their own.

It seems like that day in school when the teacher puts on a movie. It’s calm.

“We definitely don’t want it to seem like they’re being held hostage,” Goodwyn says of TABS’ layout and structure. “Truancy is the symptom. But if we peel back the layers, we’ll find out that it’s socioeconomic, bullying -- heck, they deal with home things, they didn’t eat. There’s a lot of different things that causes truancy, it just shows up as truancy.”

READ: 'Getting There': Why Do Milwaukee Students Miss School?

Goodwyn says officers find kids hanging out in parks or abandoned houses. Most are high school age.

In a single day, anywhere from two to 20 kids will come through TABS. The good news: 96 percent of them never come back.

“They’ve either gotten really smart, or they realize they don’t want to go back!” Goodwyn says.

"They're dealing with kids with lots of PTSD. My heart breaks when I think about some of the environments those kids are living in." - Dana Nix

Dana Nix was the original TABS director from 1993 to 2007. When she implemented the program, the state pumped money into it. Now schools have to pay for it themselves.

But Nix says it’s money well-spent.

“I believed in the program, and I still believe in the program,” Nix says. “There’s no other means for us to offer kids that window of opportunity to look through. Some kids climb through there and we change their lives.”

Nix says the work TABS site coordinators and social workers do is tough.

“They’re, like, triaging in an ER department,” she says. “They’re dealing with kids with lots of PTSD. My heart breaks when I think about some of the environments those kids are living in.”

And, Nix adds that she has only one regret from her time with TABS, and it’s something she hopes to see in the future.

“We had the wrong people in the seats at TABS. It was the parents that really needed to be held accountable,” Nix says.

“I really don’t believe that it’s the system’s job to fix truancy,” she continues. “All the task forces and all that, it’s commendable, but I think that it really goes back to the parenting.”

“I would hope that the parents are working with those kids, especially if they get the message their kids have been brought into the TABS center,” says current director Walter Goodwyn, explaining that the program notifies parents every time their child comes to TABS.

Goodwyn encourages parents to report their own kids truant while insisting, it’s not up to parents alone to change kids’ ways.

“In order to tackle this issue, it takes TABS, business owners, the general community. We are definitely one spoke in the wheel that helps.”

Goodwyn says even neighbors looking out for kids on the block – and reporting them to police, help his program succeed at keeping them in school.

Plenty of community organizations are pitching in, too. Tomorrow, we’ll report on volunteers working inside schools to curb truancy.