The District of Columbia Public Schools caught local and national attention last year with news of substantial absenteeism. In response, the district proposed changes to graduation requirements and definitions of truancy.
DC is not alone in struggling to respond to absenteeism. Across the country, jurisdictions attempt to get kids in school by punishing or fining parents, involving child welfare agencies, and punishing students themselves, sometimes sending them to court or juvenile detention.
But other states are responding to these students and their families in ways that acknowledge contextual barriers to attending school and show promising alternatives to punishment.
Criminalizing truancy may do more harm than good
Twenty-four states and DC treat truancy as a problem that can be solved through punitive measures in the juvenile or family court systems, though policies concerning student age and state definitions of truancy vary.
Young people labelled as “delinquent,” “unruly,” or “in need of supervision” often face challenges and negative outcomes. These labels often lead to further justice system involvement or school disengagement.
Even without a status offense or delinquency disposition (the juvenile equivalent of a conviction), just one court appearance increases the chance a young person will drop out of school. It is a troubling contradiction that the response to truancy can itself lower academic achievement.
Truant youth can be detained in many states. Although federal law prohibits the incarceration of truant youth (and other status offenders), the valid court order exception allows states to detain youth who have violated a court order, such as one to attend school.
In 2014, 25 states and DC permitted the use of valid court order exceptions. Some, in practice, detain truant youth. In Washington State, nearly 6 percent of all admissions to juvenile detention (PDF) in 2015 were for truancy, and in Colorado, more than 10 percent of all truancy filings led to a young person being sent to detention (PDF) in 2014.
Criminalizing truant young people through court involvement and subsequent detention risks exposing them to abuse and sexual victimization, and increasing their likelihood of advancing deeper into the juvenile justice system.
What alternatives to punitive truancy laws exist?
States such as Connecticut and Utah have passed amendments to repeal statutes that label truant youth “status offenders” or “delinquent.” Many jurisdictions have reinvested resources to build school, family, and community capacity to address truancy, moving kids away from the juvenile justice system.
- Schools are embracing positive incentives in lieu of retributive responses to truancy. Incentive-based programs (PDF) recognize that adolescent brains are more responsive to rewards than threats of punishment. Between 2012 and 2013, 99 Maryland schools using a Positive Behavioral Intervention Support (PBIS) model reduced truancy 3 percent (PDF); in non-PBIS schools, truancy increased 21 percent. Approaches such as these yield success not only because they incentivize attendance but also because they transform the school climate—something that may be especially effective for youth who skip school to avoid peer victimization.
- Schools are partnering with families to prevent truancy. Most states have statutes that criminalize parents for truancy, costing families up to $2,000 in fines and a year of jail time. These statutes reflect the erroneous belief that truancy is often rooted in parental neglect and disregard or magnify other potential causes such as poverty, parental incarceration (PDF), and transportation barriers. Some school districts are embracing parents as critical allies in finding solutions instead. In DC, students in 12 elementary schools that received teacher home visits were 24 percent less likely to be absent (PDF) in the 2014–15 school year than similar students who didn’t. During the 2015–16 school year, California schools saw similar reductions in absences as a result of personalized letters sent to parents.
- Collaborative, interagency partnerships rooted in the communities of truant youth show potential. Schools and juvenile justice agencies are recognizing the untapped emotional, social, and cultural resources in communities that can help prevent truancy. Community truancy boards (PDF) are collaborative efforts among community leaders, educators, and juvenile court officials to address truancy without legal action. Following an evaluation of a community truancy board in Spokane, Washington, that increased academic attainment among truant youth, Washington State mandated their use.
Consensus is growing that the justice system is ill-equipped to address school absences that may be symptomatic of underlying challenges facing the family at home or the student in school; these problems warrant services and support, not stigma and punishment.
It’s still too early to know whether the current alternatives to punishment will meaningfully address truancy. But early evidence suggests that investing in schools, families, and communities—as well as cultivating partnerships among them—may be a promising way to sustain student engagement and increase school attendance.