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An Orwellian solution to kids skipping school

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Let's say your teenager is a habitual truant and there is nothing you can do about it. A Washington area politician thinks he might have the solution: Fit the child with a Global Positioning System chip, then have police track him down.

"It allows them to get caught easier," said Maryland Delegate Doyle Niemann (D-Prince George's), who recently co-sponsored legislation in the House that would use electronic surveillance as part of a broader truancy reduction plan. "It's going to be done unobtrusively. The chips are tiny and can be put into a hospital ID band or a necklace."

Excuse me. But that is obscene. Electronic monitoring is used by criminal court judges to keep track of felons. Researchers use them to track the movements of wild animals. Let parents use such devices if they must. But that's no way for government to treat a child.

Niemann's legislation mirrors a bill sponsored by state Sen. Gwendolyn Britt (D-Prince George's). Both would provide truants and their parents with better access to social services, such as mental health evaluations and help with schoolwork. Electronic monitoring would be a last resort. Still, the prospect of tagging children and using them in some "catch and release" hunt by police casts a pall over everything that's good about the plan.

All of this is because about 6,800 students in suburban Prince George's County (out of a total 134,000) missed 20 to 35 days of school in 2005, and an additional 5,800 missed 36 days or more. A problem? Yes. Bad enough to use an Orwellian quick fix? No way. Besides, is there no end to this fiddling with mere symptoms?

Stephanie Joseph, a member of the board of ACLU of Maryland who testified against the bill at a recent Senate committee hearing, correctly observed that "it really doesn't address truancy and its root causes." Even as Niemann and other lawmakers seek to rustle up students and herd them back to school, school officials are kicking them out by the score. More than 4,300 county students were suspended at least twice during the 2005-06 school year; 480 of them, five or more times. You can imagine what all of that confusion might look like on a GPS monitor: satellite images of dots streaming in one school door and back out through another.

Perhaps most distressing is the number of students who stay in school only until age 16, when they can legally drop out. Enrollment figures show that, during any given year, roughly 14,000 students are in ninth grade. By 12th grade, the number drops to 8,000.

"We need to take a look at the whole system," Niemann said. "We want to know why students drop out and if we are preparing them for the world they live in. But there is a limit to what you can do."

Odd how billions and billions of dollars keep going to a war that almost nobody wants but there's never enough to fund the educational programs that nearly everybody says are needed. Aimed solely at students in Prince George's — the only predominantly black county in the Washington area — the truancy effort is called a "pilot program," a first-of-its-kind experiment. It would cost $400,000 to keep track of about 660 students a year.

Surely that money could be better spent. Take one example: In nearby Montgomery County, kindergarten teacher Kathleen Cohan noticed that 5-year-old children of affluent parents were entering her school knowing about 13,000 English words, while children from poor and immigrant families knew as few as 500. So she and other teachers came up with a plan to close the gap. And it worked. Between 2002 and 2005, the percentage of low-income kindergartners reaching first grade soared from 44 percent in 2002 to 70 percent in 2005.

Now that's a pilot program. Invest in something like that and you might find more students becoming eager to attend school.

Niemann notes that the law requires students to attend school — period. "Where do you lodge responsibility for school attendance: with the parent and child, or society?" he asked. "If you say that the school system has to do blank this and blank that before holding parents and students accountable, that's a dead end. That's just making excuses for unacceptable behavior."

But maintaining a school system that is among the worst in the state ought to be unacceptable, too. Maybe county officials should be monitored to see why they aren't showing up for work.

• Courtland Milloy is a Washington Post columnist. His column appears occasionally.

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Merck Ends Push for Mandatory Shots for Girls

Reacting to a furor in public health circles, Merck said Tuesday that it would stop trying to get state legislatures to mandate the use of its new cervical cancer vaccine.

At least 20 states are considering making use of the vaccine mandatory for schoolgirls, and the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, has already done so through an executive order. Part of the state rush to embrace the new vaccine has been fueled by Merck lobbying that began even before federal regulators approved the product last year.

The vaccine is aimed at a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer. Critics of the vaccine’s use on moral and other grounds have used Merck’s perceived influence as a weapon to fight its use. And even public health officials who favor the vaccine say the movement to make it mandatory has come too fast, provoking a backlash that could undermine its eventual widespread use.

Merck acknowledged that backlash on Tuesday, saying it would stop lobbying specifically for state mandates. Many of the state proposals have called for requiring girls to be vaccinated before the can enter sixth grade.

Dr. Richard M. Haupt, executive director for medical affairs in Merck’s vaccine division, said the company acted after hearing from public health officials and medical organizations that its campaign was counterproductive.

“They believe the timing for the school requirements is not right,” Mr. Haupt said.

“Our goal is to prevent cervical cancer,” he added. “Our goal is to reach as many females as possible. Right now, school requirements and Merck’s involvement in that are being viewed as a distraction to that goal.”’

Dr. Haupt said, however, that Merck would continue to provide public health officials and legislators with education about the vaccine and would also continue to lobby for more funding for vaccines in general.

He declined to say how much money or manpower Merck has been expending in its effort to get the cervical cancer vaccine mandated.

The vaccine, called Gardasil, acts against strains of the human papillomavirus that account for an estimated 70 percent of the cases of cervical cancer. The virus, known as HPV, is transmitted sexually, so experts say the vaccine is best given before girls become sexually active.

The vaccine, which costs about $400 for the three-injection regimen, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration last June. A month later a federal advisory panel recommended that girls and women 11 to 26 be vaccinated, although panelists have said that recommendation was not equivalent to recommending mandatory inoculation.

But the speed with which legislatures have moved to mandate the vaccine as a requirement for school entry has galvanized critics. Some say making a vaccine mandatory would pre-empt parental choice, while others argue that protection from a sexually transmitted virus would encourage promiscuity.

Those critics were joined by some worried about the influence of pharmaceutical companies. Merck has been a financial supporter of Women in Government, an national organization of legislators whose members have sponsored some of the state legislation to make the vaccine mandatory.

Yesterday Dr. Larry K. Pickering, the executive secretary of Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, the federal panel that recommended the vaccine’s use last July, applauded Merck’s decision to stop lobbying.

“They finally are going to stop doing that, which all of us will be happy about,” he said. Dr. Pickering, who works at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said that while the vaccine was a useful one, more data on its safety, efficacy and cost were needed before it was made mandatory.

“This is a great vaccine,” he said. “It will prevent cervical cancer. But we need to approach it with the approach we take for all vaccines.”

He said the backlash against the vaccine could undermine its use. “I think it has been somewhat counterproductive,” he said. “Anything that takes away from the process of getting vaccine into people is deleterious to the whole process.”

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Nichols: McVeigh Had High-Level FBI Help

By Pamela Manson

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Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols says a high-ranking FBI official "apparently" was directing Timothy McVeigh in the plot to blow up a government building and might have changed the original target of the attack, according to a new affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in Utah.

The official and other conspirators are being protected by the federal government "in a cover-up to escape its responsibility for the loss of life in Oklahoma," Nichols claims in a Feb. 9 affidavit.

Documents that supposedly help back up his allegations have been sealed to protect information in them, such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah had no comment on the allegations. The FBI and Justice Department in Washington, D.C., also declined comment.

Nichols does not say what motive the government would have to be involved in the bombing.

The affidavit was filed in a lawsuit brought by Salt Lake City attorney Jesse Trentadue, who believes his brother's death in a federal prison was linked to the Oklahoma City bombing.

The suit, which seeks documents from the FBI under the federal Freedom of Information Act, alleges that authorities mistook Kenneth Trentadue for a bombing conspirator and that guards killed him in an interrogation that got out of hand.

Trentadue's death a few months after the April 19, 1995, bombing was ruled a suicide after several investigations. The government has adamantly denied any wrongdoing in the death.

In his affidavit, Nichols says he wants to bring closure to the survivors and families of the attack on the Alfred B. Murrah Federal Building, which took 168 lives. He alleges he wrote then-Attorney General John Ashcroft in 2004, offering to help identify all parties who played a role in the bombing but never got a reply.

Nichols is serving a life sentence at the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Florence, Colo. McVeigh, who carried out the bombing, was executed in 2001.

McVeigh and Nichols were the only defendants indicted in the bombing. However, Nichols alleges others were involved.

McVeigh told him he was recruited for undercover missions while serving in the military, according to Nichols. He says he learned sometime in 1995 that there had been a change in bombing target and that McVeigh was upset by that.

"There, in what I believe was an accidental slip of the tongue, McVeigh revealed the identity of a high-ranking FBI official who was apparently directing McVeigh in the bomb plot," Nichols says in the affidavit.

Nichols also says that McVeigh threatened him and his family to force him to rob Roger Moore, an Arkansas gun dealer, of weapons and explosives. He later learned the robbery was staged so Moore, who was in on the phony heist, could deny any knowledge of the bombing plot if the stolen items were traced back to him, Nichols claims.

He adds that Moore allegedly told his attorney that he would not be prosecuted in connection with the bombing because he was a "protected witness."

Moore could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

In addition, Nichols says McVeigh must have had help building the bomb. The device he and McVeigh built the day before the bombing did not resemble the one that ultimately was used, Nichols says, and "displayed a level of expertise and sophistication" that neither man had.

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