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Principals and School Board members Thursday night grappled with truancy and discipline at Niagara Falls High School, ending the discussion with a commitment to identify the problem students.

"Who are these kids?" asked Superintendent Carmen A. Granto. "I want to see who is skipping school. Are they minorities? Are they special ed? We need to find out what is going on."

Russell Murgia, Niagara Falls High School principal, noted that the attendance problem appeared to accelerate in the ninth grade.

"There is no change in attendance from last year," Murgia said. "Is that good? No."

Statistics cited by the principal showed that the discipline problems also are increasing in the ninth grade.

Last year, 72 ninth-grade boys were suspended by the school, as compared with 117 so far this year. Ninth-grade girls suspended in 1996-97 numbered 49, meanwhile, as compared with 124 so far this school year.

Discipline and attendance problems often go hand in hand, according to Granto, who said that most of the students absent "are off with their parents' knowledge."

Murgia agreed, and pointed to the 15 percent of students who are chronically absent.

"We don't have the support of their parents," Murgia maintained. "It's society's problem," he said. "There's no value in the City of Niagara Falls to get an education."

Board Trustee Carol Gee-Augstell, chairwoman of the Juvenile Justice Board, asked Murgia what can be done to reduce absenteeism among ninth-graders.

"How can we help you get these kids in school?" Ms. Gee-Augstell asked. "Truant officers? Do we ask for cooperation from the businesses?"

"There is no one place where the kids go," Murgia responded. "Maybe 20 years ago, they would go to the Beverly Lanes. I don't know where they go now."

The challenge remains to make the courses and the teaching relevant, Granto offered.

It's more than that, added School Board candidate Geri Mitro, who pointed to poor reading scores.

Again, Murgia agreed.

"A major problem with the kids is not being able to read," he said. "The (reading teacher) has recommended 60 percent of our ninth-graders for summer remediation."

On a lighter note, but still on the truancy topic, vice principal Charles T. Longo was bemoaning what has become a tradition in Niagara Falls high schools: senior skip day.

"We usually get wind of it the day before at 2:30," Longo said. "We've had five so far this year," Longo told the board. "And one was a snow day."

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