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If students aren't in school, they can't learn. And those who skip school chronically will probably drop out long before the pomp and circumstance of high school graduation.

Time spent in the classroom is strongly linked to learning.

When students skip school, many also find time to get into trouble. Many of these students and dropouts turn their attention to vandalism, shoplifting and other illegal activities.

That's why news that the Cape Girardeau School District will hire a truant officer is welcomed.

The truant officer will attempt to make face-to-face contact with those students who miss school and their parents. The officer will work to determine why the absenteeism is occurring -- and how to eliminate it.

Referrals will come from school principals, especially in the elementary grades. That's where district officials feel the truant officer can make a bigger difference.

Also, Missouri law only requires youngsters to attend school until age 16.

The officer will also work with the new school resource officer from the police department who will be headquartered at the high school this fall.

While the truant officer will work throughout the 32nd judicial circuit, most of the efforts will focus on Cape Girardeau. That's because 85 percent of the juvenile office's referrals concern children from Cape Girardeau.

For many years, a truant officer was a standard fixture in the Cape Girardeau schools. In 1968, the board authorized the hiring of an attendance or truant officer feeling he could save the district enough money to pay for the salary.

But the position was eliminated in 1992 when the district was forced to cut deep into its budget.

District attendance is typically more than 93 percent. But with nearly 4,300 students, that's still an average of nearly 300 students who miss each day.

Public schools receive state funding based on daily student attendance. Superintendent Dan Tallent said the district's share of $6,000 for the officer could be recovered if students attend an additional combined 720 days.

Some districts have taken a much more proactive approach to truancy. In 1995, the Kennett School District cracked down on habitual absenteeism by referring parents to the county prosecutor for criminal charges. Parents are charged under a state law of educational neglect. The crackdown came after juvenile authorities noticed an increase in juvenile crime.

The new truant officer should be able to stem absenteeism without sending parents to jail.