Truancy Needs Early and Innovative Intervention

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Skipping school – perhaps that makes you think of adventures with high school friends just to test your independence. Four of my high school pals skipped school one beautiful spring day and drove to a nearby mall. A DJ for a local radio station was in the midst of a live remote when he interviewed my friends about a new rock and roll group.

Unfortunately, my buddies did not consider that the radio might be playing in the principal’s office.

Unlike Ferris Bueller, my friends were caught in the act. The angry principal notified their parents; discipline was instilled, and they didn’t skip school again.

Also unlike Ferris Bueller, truancy today is a serious matter. It is often the first public manifestation of real problems in a kid’s life and the first encounter with the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Each day of the school year, thousands of students of all ages are missing from the classroom. Accurate nationwide chronic truancy data is not available, but what we do know is that it is enough of a concern that many communities are searching for way to reverse the trend.

While on the bench, I saw many reasons behind frequent absence from school: illness, no parent at home to get kids off to school, an effort to hide child abuse, drug addiction or gang activity. The point is that absence from school must be noted and investigated where truancy persists.

The effects of truancy are widespread. The student falls behind classmates, requires more of the teacher’s attention and often never catches up but simply gives up and drops out of school. “Although correlation is not causation, the links between leaving school before graduating and having poor life outcomes are striking,” according to a Brookings Institute policy briefing, which also noted that more than two-thirds of state prison inmates never graduated high school.

The negative effects are not limited to the dropout but are also felt by taxpayers as everyone bears the ever-escalating prison costs, and the associated problems rarely stop with one individual, one generation.

For most school districts, truancy also means a drop in average daily attendance counts and a corresponding loss of state revenues. In some school districts it may mean referral to the juvenile justice system. Prosecutors, defenders and judges may be unaware of best practices in combating truancy and therefore resort to familiar tools – prosecution, stern lectures and detention for failing to abide by court orders to attend school.

Although detention of status offenders, including kids who have truancy charges, is a violation of the federal law and can lead to loss of federal funds to the state budgets, some state policymakers and local jurisdictions turn to the juvenile justice system to correct truancy problems. Because chronic truancy often is a sign of complex underlying issues in families, reliance on courts to be the enforcer without addressing the root cause will not keep the child in school and could start the youth on a lengthy path into the juvenile justice system.

There appears to be a growing recognition among the public that truancy – and the fact that too often the penalty for truancy does not bring the student back into a classroom but continues to interrupt learning – is a problem impacting communities across the nation.

“For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin  (D-IL) said at a December congressional hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline. “What is especially concerning about this phenomenon is that it deprives our kids of their fundamental right to an education.”

Effective truancy responses in Illinois vary. A recent Chicago Tribune series examining truancy reported, for example, that Galesburg, Illinois, uses outreach workers to make home visits and can issue $75 tickets to parents whose children have repeated absences. One outreach worker gives alarm clocks to students who tell him they can’t wake up in time to catch the school bus.

Also Illinois, Jefferson County Sheriff Roger Mulch allows his officers to serve notices to appear at the Truancy Review Board (TRB. He says, “When problems are identified at the informal TRB hearings, actions immediately follow … appointments are made with therapists at the table, referrals are made to drug treatment. Sometimes, the issues are financial, and we can refer to emergency funding sources. Overwhelmingly, those kids are back at school.”

From a judge’s perspective, I recognize the importance of early intervention to avert educational failure and criminal behavior. Truancy is a subject not easily handled by traditional justice tools. Many communities have successful models for truancy reduction and the best practices include efforts by a group of local stakeholders and parents. Judges must get off the bench and be involved in our communities’ efforts to produce positive outcomes for kids who are not in school.

The Hon. George W. Timberlake, Ret., a trial court judge for 23 years, serves as Chair of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission, since his appointment by Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn in January 2010, and he is an alternate member of Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.

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