Every day, hundreds of thousands of students across the United States are absent from school without a legitimate excuse. Every year, cities, states, and school districts across the country announce new initiatives designed to entice, counsel, threaten, or coerce kids into attending school. Most of those programs are based on the assumption that the causes and solutions of habitual truancy lie within the family. The truants, however, disagree.
Last week, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that the school district's truant officers are being equipped with cell phones and software that will give them immediate access to any student's date of birth, address, emergency phone numbers, and class schedule. Eventually, according to the mayor, the phones also will be able to access outstanding arrest warrants. The cell phones will help truant officers determine the validity of the myriad excuses (and alibis?) they encounter when they approach students found off school grounds during school hours.
"Our goal is to make sure every student is in class and getting the education they deserve,'' Menino said.
With his announcement, Mayor Menino introduced the latest weapon in the city wide -- and nationwide -- war against student truancy. Will it help? Certainly, the technology will make a truant officer's job easier. Whether it also will decrease Boston's daily student absentee rate -- which Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant told the Boston Globe is as high as 20 percent at some city high schools -- remains to be seen.
Boston's truancy problem is not unique, of course. Every day, hundreds of thousands of students across the United States are absent from school without a legitimate excuse. According to "Student Truancy," a 1999 ERIC Digest, "absentee rates have reached as high as 30 percent in some cities." Every year, cities, states, and school districts across the country announce new initiatives designed to entice, counsel, threaten, or coerce kids into attending school.
In the Columbus (Ohio) Truancy Prevention through Mediation Program (TPMP) a mediator from the local court system visits participating schools each month to mediate meetings between teachers and parents of habitually truant students. The mediator attempts to help the adults identify the causes of a student's truancy problem and develop home/school strategies to address them.
The majority of programs, however, are primarily punitive. Some states have laws that allow parents to be jailed or fined if their children are habitually truant. In Arizona, parents of habitual truants can be fined up to $500 and jailed for up to 30 days. In a few states, such as Oklahoma and Maryland, parents of habitual truants risk losing eligibility for certain forms of public assistance. A number of states have passed daytime curfew laws that allow truant officers to stop -- and apprehend -- students found off school grounds. In Florida, a habitual truant cannot apply for a driver's license and the licenses of those already driving are suspended.
The most common methods of dealing with habitual truants, involve parental notification of the truancy, followed by counseling and education programs for the truants and their families.
Most truancy programs -- both the innovative and the ordinary -- have two factors in common (besides success rates often measured in fractions of percents): They identify the family as the primary source of a student's truancy problem and operate on the assumption that the sole effective solution to truancy lies outside the school. The assumption that family values, expectations, and attitudes lie at the root of habitual truancy probably is correct; the assumption that those factors are the most immediate cause of a student's truancy probably is not.
According to a survey reported in Student Truancy, "students most often cited boredom and loss of interest in school, irrelevant courses, suspensions, and bad relationships with teachers as the major factors in their decision to skip school." Other studies indicate that habitual truants are struggling academically, do not have friends who attend school regularly, see no reason for attending school, and report feeling socially isolated in school. Most commonly, from the student's perspective, the immediate cause of truancy lies within the school.
Despite the belief among most educators that family problems cause chronic truancy, the fact is that schools can deal with many of the issues that cause truancy -- even in the face of indifferent or ineffective parenting.
School-based components of an effective truancy program should include
Absenteeism is not just a problem for the students who choose to ditch school and their parents and teachers. According to the San Bernardino (California) district attorney's office,