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Tackling Teen Truancy
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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.

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In today's StarrPoints, columnist Linda Starr identifies five essential elements of school-based teen truancy programs. Do you agree? Does your school have a truancy program that works? Tell us about it on a StarrPoints message board.

Linda Starr, a former teacher and the mother of four children, has been an education writer for more than a decade. Starr is the curriculum and technology editor for Education World.

Some of those programs are extremely creative. In Hartford, Connecticut, a local car dealer donated a new car, which will be raffled off at the end of this year. Only families of students with perfect attendance records will be eligible to participate. (Nearly 15 percent of the city's students became ineligible on the first day of 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

  • a clearly stated, zero-tolerance student attendance policy. A policy that states, "Students with 15 unexcused absences will not be promoted to the next grade," is not good enough, though. Kids lose track of how many absences they have; they accumulate several absences and fall behind or give up. Effective policies are designed to keep kids on track, not to punish them when they reach the end of the line. Effective policies should spell out a series of escalating consequences as the number of unexcused absences increases. Those consequences should be immediate, consistent, and impartial.
  • truancy prevention strategies that make school matter. Kids identify a lack of interest and a lack of relevance as two important causes of truancy. School districts need to make available to students a wide range of non-academic courses, career awareness and counseling programs, career-related electives, and work-study and apprenticeship programs. Not every student is motivated by the prospect of higher education. Not every student has that option.
  • truancy prevention strategies that bring kids together. Habitual truants report feeling socially isolated in school. School districts should require that all middle- and high-school students participate in at least one on-campus, extra-curricular or community service activity each semester. Scrap study halls for activity time, if necessary. The right friends keep friends coming to school. Schools should provide opportunities for kids to make those friends.
  • truancy sanctions that address academic failure. Most kids who cut school regularly are already struggling academically; they stay away from school because they can't do the work anyway. Instead of sending habitual truants to counseling or community service organizations, "sentence" them to tutoring programs, online courses, and Web-based tutorials. Better yet, provide those options for all at-risk students. Kids show up where they're successful.
  • programs for families. Expecting parents to gain control of an unmotivated and chronically under-disciplined teenager, and punishing parents with jail sentences, fines, and other financial penalties when they don't, won't solve the truancy problem. The best that schools can do, and the most courts should do, is to involve parents in school activities as much as possible, contact parents often and provide them with practical suggestions for helping their teens, and mandate counseling and other services that will help them encourage and support their teenagers' efforts to remain in school. Most importantly, educators need to make students realize that regular school attendance is their responsibility, whether their parents "make" them go or not.

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,

  • 78 percent of prison inmates had truancy as the first entry on their arrest records.
  • the most likely juvenile recidivists were those whose first referrals were truancy, burglary, motor vehicle theft, or robbery.
  • truants are found to be at greater risk for becoming involved with gangs, drugs, alcohol, or violence.
  • 67 percent of truants tested positive for drugs at the time they were detained.
  • 57 percent of violent crimes committed by juveniles occur on school days.
  • 82 percent of prisoners today are school dropouts.
Studies indicate, moreover, that truancy is one of the most significant predictors of juvenile delinquency, and that a direct correlation exists between truancy rates and daytime crime rates. Truancy is truly a community problem. The problem with most community-based truancy programs is that they are single-pronged attacks aimed at a multi-faceted problem. If truancy programs are going to be successful, educators, legislators, and the entire community need to work together to give kids lots of reasons to go to school. Maybe one will work.