Over the past several decades, researchers have studied and debated the complex pathway between school truancy, delinquency and involvement with the adult criminal justice system. While there is no direct link between school truancy and criminal behaviors, truancy is often a symptom of complex issues including concerns around violence, mental health, substance use in the home, and homelessness, in addition to other difficulties that are not easily addressed.
When these underlying issues remain unaddressed, youth are at risk for behavioral health problems and delinquent behaviors, among a host of other negative consequences that can last long into adulthood. Ultimately, the causes and consequences of school truancy are varied and difficult to disentangle and it requires a nuanced and careful policy response.
Currently, many states look to the juvenile justice system to address truancy which may, in and of itself, be criminogenic. Several studies have found that involvement in the juvenile justice system is associated with further juvenile justice and criminal justice system involvement. While the impact of juvenile justice system involvement is most significant when the intervention is intensive and in an out-of-home setting, any type of contact with the system can have a negative impact on an individual. Coupled with some of the complex issues that are at the root of school truancy, contact with the juvenile justice system may exacerbate the problem.
While Ohio remains one of a number of states that have criminal provisions for truancy, the state enacted House Bill 410 (HB 410) in 2016 to allow schools to work with youth and families to address truancy while avoiding unnecessary involvement in the juvenile justice system. HB 410 redefined truancy to consider the number of hours that a student misses rather than days. Once a student accumulates enough hours of school to be considered “habitually truant,” the school district is responsible for working with students and families to address the issue.
HB 410 places the responsibility of addressing truancy with the school districts. Referrals to juvenile court can only occur when all other avenues have been exhausted. The Ohio Department of Education recommends that school districts use several strategies to try to prevent truancy:
- School and family communication
- Developing an intervention plan
- Programs that target caregivers (i.e., parent education programs)
- Referral to juvenile court
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Implementation of this policy approach has delivered mixed results throughout the state. One of the key components to success is that school districts must have adequate resources to identify the underlying cause of a student’s issues with truancy and then work to address the issue, often with the help of community agencies. Schools are often ill-equipped to deal with some of the complex issues that students may be facing, and community agencies that work with populations of at-risk youth are often in a better position to address the problem. Within the confines of this model, school districts are expected to identify and assess the problems that are causing the student to be truant and to make linkages with the appropriate community resources.
Stable, well-funded resources critical
While this model of collaboration between schools and community to address truancy has been implemented with success in other states, funding for districts in Ohio varies wildly, with many ancillary services such as student support personnel — including social workers and counselors — being underfunded or unavailable. The availability and adequacy of these resources, which are critical to this model, vary by the location of the school district (e.g., urban vs. rural), size of the district, number of students and the financial health of the community the district is in. Furthermore, the availability of appropriate services in the community for youth and families also vary by location.
Since HB 410 has been enacted and implemented, we have worked with juvenile courts in several counties across Ohio that work with students who are ultimately referred to the court. Through our work, we have found that in general, truancy does not occur because students simply want to miss school. There are a number of difficult barriers that range from transportation to violence in the home, neighborhood and schools. We have also found tremendous variability in the ability of schools, community agencies and the juvenile justice system to collaborate and deal with these barriers. This significantly impacts how well this policy approach works.
Communication among these entities, especially for them to intervene early in the school year, is critical to success. However, in many cases, schools are not in a position to be able to provide students and families with proper assessment and links to appropriate services. In one rural county where schools have had to drastically reduce the number of social workers and other services, they are struggling to track attendance at the level of detail required, identify barriers to attendance, and to work with students and families to address truancy. As a result, students are often referred to the juvenile court once they have missed hundreds of hours late in the school year. Once students have been truant for a significant portion of the school year, any intervention is likely to be ineffective.
While the intent of HB 410 was to place the responsibility on the schools to address school truancy issues while avoiding contact with the juvenile justice system, schools have been given little support to execute the policy. Effective intervention is largely dependent on the school’s ability to identify the problem, communicate with students and families, and connect them with appropriate services. To help schools successfully enact HB 410, a multisystem collaboration and resources to facilitate this collaboration is key.
These systems work together to help youth and families to address truancy problems by exploring alternative approaches. Ohio’s model builds on the Washington state model by eliminating all contact with the juvenile justice system until all other approaches have been attempted. While this can help school districts, families and students to address truancy while avoiding the potentially negative outcomes associated with contact with the juvenile justice system, this approach can only work with investment in support services in the schools, particularly in social workers and counselors.
School truancy is a significant issue for the juvenile justice system, as it is one of the first times that a youth may become involved with the system. Prior to HB 410, school truancy constituted a significant portion of referrals to Ohio’s juvenile courts. Avoiding this initial contact with the juvenile justice system is key to positive long-term outcomes for youths. To do so, we must invest in schools, particularly in social workers who can identify barriers to attendance and make appropriate linkages to community services.
Fredrick Butcher, Ph.D., is a research assistant professor with the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences and senior research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University. His research on juvenile justice diversion has appeared in a number of journals in a number of social science fields including criminal justice and social work.
Kristen Boyer is a research associate at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University, where her research interests include juvenile justice, behavioral health and racial disparities. Before this she spent several years in health care conducting clinical trials and health services research.