D.C. police picked up more than 3,700 students for truancy in the first semester of a school year marked by new reforms. "The challenge is, how much does a student learn when he's not in school?" D.C. Councilman Sekou Biddle, chairman of the Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy, told The Washington Examiner. "For us to have long-lasting, sustainable education reform, we've got to improve what's going on inside classrooms, but also the number of students there to benefit from it."

Biddle said D.C. Public Schools reported that 13 percent of secondary school students had racked up 15 or more unexcused absences, earning them the school system's "chronically truant" label.

A far greater number of students had skipped at least 10 days, Biddle said he learned in a meeting with D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier.

Biddle maintained that many students aren't ditching school to catch a movie but because they feel threatened commuting to class.

"The chief pointed out that other people -- not students -- are hanging around school buildings and preying on kids traveling to and from school. People taking their stuff from them," Biddle said. "Every day we make choices about what we're going to do, and if I don't feel safe going to and from school, it's a hurdle."

The school safety and truancy committee has scheduled its first hearing for Feb. 26.

The truancy rate for the 2008-2009 school year was 20 percent, with police receiving 3,500 emergency calls from D.C. Public Schools buildings or grounds.

School system spokesman Fred Lewis said the truancy rate "is something we have been working diligently to address, but still have a long way to go to reach our goal."

Lewis pointed to the mandatory attendance committees and computerized tracking systems recently introduced into schools, saying the school system will work with the committee to reduce truancy.

D.C. Public Schools refers students to D.C. Superior Court after 25 unexcused absences.

Under city law, parents can be fined for their children's repeated unexcused absences, but the penalty is rarely enforced, Councilman David Catania has said. "We have been too soft for too long on this issue."