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What is the connecting link between restricted driving privileges, enforced community service, and reduced welfare payments? These strategies are components of truancy-prevention programs in effect throughout the United States.
Did you ever skip school for a day at the beach or a day of skiing? That activity was probably minor compared to the exploits of many chronically truant students today. Truancy has become a national problem. And kids are not the only losers when they don't attend school or when they miss hours of school each day. Society loses as well.
The At Risk Children Initiative reported that
"Many police departments have found that rising daytime crime can be traced, in part, to truancy. In Van Nuys, California, a three-week truancy sweep resulted in a 60% reduction in shoplifting arrests. In St. Paul, Minnesota, crimes such as purse snatching dropped by almost 50% after police began picking up truants and taking them to a new school attendance center."
Local approaches to the problem of school attendance take several forms.
Because truancy is a societal problem, most truancy reduction programs are community-based. School systems, police and probation departments, welfare departments, and other social service agencies are teaming up to get kids back in school.
A program in Chester, Pennsylvania, recognizes that fining parents is often not enough to change the behavior of truant youths. Instead, the new program will require community service of participating students. "This is a step to facilitate education, not penalize a family," Gwendolyn Miller, district attendance supervisor of the Chester Upland School District, told the Philadelphia Inquirer.
Right now, Miller adds, parents can be fined $300 plus court costs.
The program focuses on getting the students back in school instead of financially penalizing their families -- many of whom do not have the money to pay.
The Chester Upland district has seen a decline in truancy rates during the past few years -- average attendance is now about 80%. The small number of students with "long-standing truancy problems" in this new program will be carefully followed. They will each perform about nine hours of community service, and if students over age 13 fail to show up for community service they will be assigned to an alternative service program for juvenile offenders.
"This signals to the community that the county and the court system care about the children of Chester," Dexter Davis, a Chester Upland assistant superintendent told the Inquirer. "You can have the greatest school program in the world, but it doesn't mean anything if the children are not there."
How would you react to a letter threatening legal action and possible prosecution? The Los Angeles District Attorney's office sends letters to the parents of truant students. The letters threaten the parents with criminal prosecution unless they attend a school meeting. The strategy seems to be working because attendance improved in almost 80% of the cases.
"This is a parental responsibility program," Deputy District Attorney John Carols Tosello told the Los Angeles Times. He went on to say, "...the health department has determined that poor attendance in school is correlated with teenage pregnancy, with police involvement, with possible gang involvement. There are many unforeseen negative consequences."
This program was designed to get the attention of parents -- and it did. But some parents of children with chronic health conditions (and resulting erratic attendance patterns) have complained of harassment. Even in large systems, officials must understand the necessity of gathering relevant information before threatening action where it is not appropriate -- attendance figures of students do not always tell the entire story. Likewise, parents should not overreact, but explain the problem and appreciate that the student's interests are being addressed with good intent.
In September 1997, the New York Times reported that three city schools would be among the first in the state to pilot a learnfare program. By law, the program would extend to all schools in the state by September 1999. The article described the state law:
"...If a child missed five or more days of school in a three-month academic quarter 'without good cause,' the social services agency is required to cut welfare benefits for that child's household. The law applies to children in first through sixth grades."
According to the article, "Critics have asserted that the policy punishes children for their parents' failure to get them to school. Supporters defend it as a route out of welfare for children who are encouraged to stay in school."
These actions also grab the attention of parents and guardians, but again caution must be taken to avoid penalizing families when it is not warranted.
Schools in Columbus, Ohio, instituted a program called SMART -- Student Mediation and Assistance to Reduce Truancy -- to speed up action in truancy cases. The program requires that families of chronic truants must meet with school officials and members of the County Juvenile Court's Protective Services Department. Officials use the meetings to determine why the student(s) are not attending school and to make parents aware of their responsibilities.
"Parents are warned that their children are entitled to an education and they could face a civil charge of educational neglect, which could result in a child being removed from the home," states a Columbus Dispatch report. "Parents also could be charged with contributing to the non-support of a minor, a first-degree misdemeanor with a maximum punishment of six months in jail and $1,000 fine."
Family problems, which surface at the meetings, are addressed and parents are referred to helping agencies when appropriate.
SMART appears to be working. Most cases have been resolved before court proceedings had to be instituted. "We feel strongly that at the elementary school level it is the parents' responsibility to get the child to school," Nancy Catena, administrator of Protective Services, told the Dispatch. SMART helps them meet that responsibility.
In June 1997, the California Department of Education awarded $10 million in grant money to local education agencies for truancy prevention and public safety programs. The Targeted Truancy and Public Safety Demonstration Grant Program aims "...to develop ways to identify these youths before they become repeat offenders, and to provide them with the preventive and corrective treatment to keep them in school and out of trouble. We want to help these students learn the personal and academic skills to do well in later life."
The programs are collaborations between schools, probation departments, and law enforcement and social service agencies.
In Chicago, public school officials are attacking truancy by combining "systemwide efforts, local initiatives, and improved programs for at-risk youth." The policy includes an automated calling system that will contact homes of truant students and a 24-hour truancy hotline which citizens can use to report truant students. According to a 1996 press release, the primary problem is at the high school level. The Chicago Public Schools program also
How can students learn the importance of punctuality, of attending school for the entire day -- especially the beginning of the day? Some high schools in Boston are making the point by locking school doors in a controversial program that targets latecomers.
"This school year, dozens of students at 11 Boston high schools are being shut out every day as officials refuse to tolerate tardiness," reports the Boston Globe. "The effort has dramatically increased punctuality, but students, police, and those who work with truants have begun complaining the policy is forcing students onto the streets when they should be in school."
Some school officials believe this is the best method of getting the message to students that tardiness is not acceptable. But some students feel that the lockout is too severe. Some community members and police officers agree because students who cannot get into their schools are on the streets all day.
In my own perfect world, truancy prevention would begin as part of a prenatal education program for mothers and fathers. Parents would learn about their responsibilities -- that children deserve, and by law must receive, an education -- and parents would learn about possible consequences. That prenatal class would stress the effects parental behaviors and attitudes have on school attendance (and on all other areas of children's lives). Schools would also keep parents (and older students) informed of changing attendance laws and programs. Regular communication between school, families, and students would address any problems early on.
Truancy programs must also plan safety nets to assure that the actions taken are appropriate and deserved. Just as different strategies work in different locales, individual situations will call for adaptation or exception. And successful programs must keep as their focus helping students get back to school. Punishment for students or their families should be secondary.
First Step to a Lifetime of Problems
This bulletin describes successful truancy-prevention programs throughout the country.
Tries Putting Truants on the Spot
A pilot program holds students directly responsible for finding their way to class every day.
Public Schools Truancy Office
This is the Web site of the Truancy Office of Seattle's schools.
Article by Gary Hopkins
Copyright © 2006 Education World
Originally published 03/23/1998
Last updated 11/20/2007