The first time I skipped school I was 13 years old. Up until then I had achieved perfect attendance for eight years. But in ninth grade I put an ignominious end to my record.
That year, I had a friend, Jack, who lived down the street. His parents both went to work early, and he was left to his own devices to get to school. His family owned a late ‘60s Thunderbird, and one day he got the idea that these mornings before school would be an ideal time to practice his driving. We drove around town, mostly on dirt roads and in fields, but sometimes on busy streets as well. This went fine for awhile, until one day the car ran out of gas. This was a problem, since we were unable to get back home in time to make our regular ride to school. It made sense that since we were already in trouble we might as well make the best of it, so we spent the day going to the arcade and watching television.
Up until then I had never considered playing hooky, but after my adventure with Jack I increasingly began to take advantage of the joys of truancy. Once I realized I could simply walk away from school, or better yet not show up at all, a new world opened up for me.
I remembered my time with Jack when I was recently reading about attempts to curb truancy in Kentucky.
The Covington, Ky., city council voted unanimously in December of last year to put more power into the hands of police officers when they encountered kids skipping school. The ordinance took effect on Jan. 2, 2012. It gives officers some extra powers to charge kids with a misdemeanor if they are caught away from school during school hours. It also makes the parents subject to charges if they are complicit in the crime. The Director of Pupil Personnel for the district told a local reporter that this was a good way to get the families of problem kids in front of a judge.
Assistant Chief of Covington Police, Lt. Col. Michael 'Spike' Jones told WPOC Channel 9, "The way the state statute is set up now, there's a whole lot that goes into actually charging a child with truancy on the onset initially that we have to go through. This eliminates some of those steps, it prevents our police officers from having to be babysitters, so to speak, and it gives us a safe place to take these kids and get them returned back into the environment where they can learn."
Similar measures are being adopted around the country. In Belen, N.M., where some 10 percent of the districts kids have attendance problems, the courts will become involved if the student misses 10 classes. Parents face fines and even jail time if the truancy problems do not improve.
I am not so sure that making it easier to charge kids, and their parents, with a crime is the best way to go. The real incentive here is not the wellbeing of these kids, some 90 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line, but funding for the school district that is tied to attendance. Last year the Covington, Ky., school district, which oversees 4,000 students, had 13,500 unexcused absences. This cost the district $500,000 in funding tied to the No Child Left Behind Law.
In the current economic crisis it is understandable that schools want to do whatever they can to maintain funding levels. And I am making no case that truancy is not, sometimes, a serious problem. My own opposition to these types of laws comes from a sense that they are focused on the wrong area. In many cases of truancy, and its side effects of poor school performance and increased involvement in crime, the truancy is only a warning of some deeper problem. This was true in my own life, and it is true in the lives of many kids today.
Problems such as poverty, domestic violence, drug abuse, bullying, and neglect, all contribute to kids missing school. Behavioral issues often underlie truancy as well, and are better addressed by counseling than by sending kids and their parents in front of a judge or, God forbid, to jail.
While I understand the good motives behind laws like these, I cannot agree with their premise that these measures will do something to improve the underlying situations that cause kids to miss school. These are better dealt with in other ways. We cannot make a crime out of everything we dislike and hope that it will then magically go away. That is simplistic and unlikely to work. Similar measures have been tried around the country and have usually been abandoned after a few years. Let’s instead look for creative solutions that acknowledge the real societal issues for which truancy is often only an indicator.