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Schools use cell phones to snag truants

Boston's public school system is fighting truancy with the same wireless gear its 63,000 students use to practice it.

Boston's public school system is fighting truancy with the same wireless gear its 63,000 students use to practice it.

Truants use cell phones to avoid the teams of three officers patrolling Boston's schools. Now, campus police have cutting-edge Nextel Communications phones capable of downloading data such as a classroom schedule or a parent's phone number to catch a student in a lie.

The trial program is expected to be announced Wednesday. Boston claims to be the first to enlist the newest classes of wireless devices and networks to fight truancy in public schools. Police agencies have also embraced these devices. Officers patrolling Boston's Logan Airport use PDAs (personal digital assistants) that get updated photographs and information about suspects.

At schools in Boston, three-person "truancy teams" have been roaming the hallways since 1998 to catch students skipping classes. The teams have been using a telephone book-size printout with information about all 63,000 students in the district. The information historically has been outdated and incomplete, according to Boston school officials.

"Boston was the first city in the nation to network its schools to the Internet. We have not stopped there," said Boston Mayor Thomas Menino. "This will replace inefficient, manual systems with cutting-edge technology."

Boston has a strict truancy policy: A student doesn't get promoted to the next grade level if he or she has more than a dozen unexcused absences in a year, the mayor said.

Nextel is supplying the cell phones for the program. The company makes phones that use the software language Java to download more complex games or business programs.

AirClic, a 2-year-old company based in Blue Bell, Penn., also is participating in the trial. AirClic makes scanners that can read bar codes, similar to the wireless devices used by delivery services to scan in a signature for a package.

It also creates a wireless network that is capable of sending larger files of information through the airwaves and into phones.