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Playing hooky? It's no game

Her dark eyes dart from one side of the road to the other as her steel-gray Volvo eases down the streets of the North Greenwood area in Clearwater.

Susan Bell is looking for truants.

"I have an advantage because I grew up in this area," said Bell, who works as an attendance specialist with the Pinellas County school district. "I always know somebody in the family, even if I don't know the kid."

A teenager, a recent school dropout, passes Bell on a bicycle and waves.

"See that one," Bell said. "I tried so hard to keep him in school."

In times past, Bell's title would have been "truant officer." Most schools used to employ at least one. Now Bell and two other "attendance specialists" serve all the high schools and middle schools in North Pinellas.

Daily, they visit the homes of students who skip class. Bell says she will knock on any door anywhere unless she hears a bark first.

"I don't stop if there's a dog," said Bell, who during one home visit was attacked by a pit bull terrier. Her pocketbook, which she used to defend herself, still bears the dog's tooth marks.

September is an easy month, Bell said. Hard-core truancy patterns have not yet set in.

The spring months are the worst, she said, especially during spring training when the Blue Jays and the Phillies are playing in ballparks within walking distances of local schools.

"Once I went to a Blue Jays game with the school resource officer," Bell said. "When we walked into the ballpark, I mean, you could just see the kids rushing to get out of there."

On a typical school day, Bell stops by her assigned schools _ Dunedin Middle School, Dunedin High School, Clearwater Discovery School and Kennedy Middle School _ to pick up truancy lists.

On this day at Kennedy Middle School in Clearwater, guidance counselor Myra Elliott asks Bell about a student on the verge of becoming an attendance problem.

"I talked to his mother," Elliott said.

"His mother is dead," said Bell, who knows the family.

"But I talked to her," Elliott said.

"His mother is dead," Bell repeated.

Elliott checked the wall clock, which read 11:50 a.m.

"The mother said she'd come in at noon today," Elliott said.

"I believe I'll wait for this one," Bell said, "in case she comes in from the grave."

She doesn't.

Bell leaves Kennedy in search of a student who has been absent for three days.

He's an eighth-grader. Bell has been visiting his home fairly regularly for two years.

"His mother has her own agenda," Bell said. "To catch up with her, it's best to get here early in the morning when she's on her way in."

On this day, neither the boy nor his mother is home.

His grandmother is there, however, babysitting a couple of preschoolers.

The grandmother remembers Bell from previous visits.

"I was just telling him the other day, "Susan's going to be coming out,' " the grandmother tells Bell.

Today, the boy is in juvenile court.

"He is outrageous, Susan," the grandmother said. "Be strict with him."

"You tell him I'll be looking for him tomorrow at Kennedy," Bell said.

Back down in North Greenwood, Bell, 44, points out the house where she was raised. Her mother and father, Eleanor and Harold Christopher, still live there. Bell and her husband, Leon, live 2 miles north. A son, Aaron Payton, is in the Army stationed in Alaska.

Clearwater Discovery School, a school she now serves, is the former Pinellas High School where she graduated in 1967. At that time, the school was the only one in North Pinellas for black students.

On her way to the administration office at Clearwater Discovery School, Bell points out what used to be her Spanish classroom.

"I love this school," she said. "I love school, period. I'd do anything in the world to keep a kid from dropping out of school."

In the office, Bell reports on attempts to locate a 12-year-old girl who already has missed seven days of school. Bell said she found an eviction notice on what she believes was the apartment where the child lived. Although the apartment manager couldn't verify that the child Bell was seeking lived with the evicted family, Bell is pretty sure she did.

"The time frame is right. I'd bet my check on this one," Bell said, and suggests reluctantly that school clerks give up on this one because the evicted family left no forwarding address.

Back in her car, Bell goes looking for a Dunedin Middle School student who she suspects is attending the wrong school.

She drives across the railroad tracks, which is the line that separates the Dunedin Middle School zone from the Palm Harbor Middle School zone, and finds the girl's house.

"Just as I thought, this is the Palm Harbor zone," Bell said.

When no one answers her knock, Bell checks with a neighbor who tells her the girl, who recently was suspended after she was caught with a stolen purse, is at her grandmother's house a few streets away.

"Seems like there are more grandmothers keeping kids this year than ever before," Bell said.

Before the day ends, Bell goes back to Dunedin Middle School to make a string of phone calls. Tomorrow, she'll be on the road again.

"I've got to make sure these kids are somewhere in somebody's school," Bell said.

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