Guest Column

My Undercover Job: Truant Officer

by JOHNNY G. CORDELL

After serving 10 years as a teacher, coach and principal, I was asked to take a position in the central office.

More accurately, I should say several positions because in a small rural county, a supervisor wears many hats of responsibility. I was in charge of federal programs, transportation and attendance. In the latter category was a job description known as truant officer, a position I’m not even sure exists in most school systems today.

I was responsible for ferreting out and delivering to the appropriate schools any students who were not attending school or who were dilatory at best. I also would issue warrants to parents to appear in the local juvenile court. I was authorized by the local sheriff to carry a weapon, something I did rarely.

At that time, I knew most families in the community and was able to work constructively with most parents. Normally a parent would initiate first contact when a child was reluctant to attend school. I would visit the home and attempt to persuade the child about the importance of attending school.

If this failed, I would proceed through the next legal step in the truancy process, especially if truant students were of high school age. However, if the youngster attended elementary school, the parent sometimes allowed me to take the child to school. Most truant students below high-school level were boys and from single-parent homes. I would accomplish this task with little difficulty. Once the student realized momma would not intervene, he would cease to resist.

Recalcitrance Uncovered
But, as is always the case in education, I learned to expect the unexpected. On a beautiful fall morning, a call came in to my office with the usual pattern of conversation. “My son won’t go to school. I can’t do anything with him. Can you make him go to school?”

With a few queries I ascertained her son was a 4th grader and the location of their house. Normally, I would take along the school psychologist or one of my central-office supervisors, but the mother was supportive, and I felt this would be a quick in-and-out operation.

I arrived to find the mother was waiting at the door; she informed me her son had barricaded himself in his bedroom. Somehow this small 4th-grade pupil had moved a large bed so that it was wedged against the bedroom door.

After a few minutes I dislodged the bed enough to gain entrance. At that point, I discovered the boy had taken refuge under his bed covers. After a few yanks and tugs I was able to uncover this recalcitrant youngster. What I encountered next was a youngster naked as a newborn. I guess he calculated I would not attempt to dress him, and he was correct in that assumption.

Gratifying Exits
Faced with that situation today, I would have simply walked away and turned this case over to the juvenile court. However, that morning, I was much younger and a lot dumber, and on an impulse I grabbed his bed quilt, wrapped him mummy style and proceeded to carry him out to my vehicle.

On the way out I instructed the mother to gather his clothes and toss them into the back seat where I had placed her son. I think he was so surprised by my actions that he did not attempt to extricate himself from the quilt.

Ten minutes later I drove up to the front door of the middle school. After turning off the engine, I casually looked over my shoulder into the back seat and simply announced “Son, your friends are waiting. You can go in naked or you can put your clothes on. Either way you are going to school.”

At this juncture, the baffled little boy wasn’t sure what this crazy person would do next. He immediately donned his clothes, exited the car and entered the building. My immediate response was a sigh of relief he didn’t call my bluff.

I worked in this capacity for about 10 years, and it served me well on my way to the superintendency in the years that followed. Each year I would attend high school graduation ceremonies and check off every student I had contact with during my truant officer days.

Invariably, a graduating senior would approach me at each commencement and thank me for keeping him or her in school. It was gratifying during my ninth year to congratulate a particular senior male who I am sure had clothes on underneath his gown, but being a lot older and much wiser, I leave that to your imagination.

Johnny Cordell is superintendent of the Sequatchie County School District in Dunlap, Tenn. E-mail: cordellj1@k12tn.net