Ferris Bueller’s day off? Try day in jail.

Guest
blogger  Lisa Gibes is a research intern at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Should truant students be treated as criminals? Since the
1990s, states have been witnessing rising rates of truancy and tardiness at all
grade levels
. Tasked with getting students back in the
classroom, officials have tried everything from revoking driver’s licenses to
fining and arresting offenders (or their parents). While the point of these
laws is to promote good attendance, many argue that such policies are punitive
and disproportionately target minority students from high-poverty communities.
Something needs to be done to ensure students are in their desks where they
belong, but is slapping them with handcuffs and a $350 fine the solution?

Since the
1990s, states have been witnessing rising rates of truancy and tardiness at all grade levels.

For the past decade, Los
Angeles has been trying to fight truancy by enforcing
a daytime curfew, making it illegal for minors to be unaccompanied by an adult
during school hours. This law allows police officers to arrest offending
students and summon them to court where they face fines starting at $250. A
recent article
reports that an L.A. Community Rights Campaign got its hands on police reports
documenting 47,000 truancy tickets filed in the past five years. The majority
of the tickets were given to young Black and Latino males from high poverty
communities—many on their way to school when they were ticketed. (L.A. officials have since reconsidered their
tough-love approach following a public outcry.) Opponents argued that the
hard-lined attack on truancy had, in fact, backfired, as
many students failed to pay their fines and would often skip school altogether
to avoid a ticket if they thought they might be tardy, resulting in an overall
increase in truancy.

Other communities have expressed frustration around current
truancy policies. Last year, a group of Pennsylvania
parents
filed a lawsuit against the school district for charging
“exorbitant” truancy penalties—one student had accrued over $27,000 in fines.
Dozens of teenagers from Texas
found themselves in jail after
failing to pay their truancy fines. (Thankfully the judge ruled the debtor’s
prison-like treatment to be unconstitutional.) And parents in Virginia have found themselves saddled with misdemeanor
charges
after their children had a string of late arrivals. Yet
there is no
evidence
supporting the effectiveness of these punitive policies in
dramatically reducing truancy. A 2007
study
by Balfanz, Lisa Herzog, and Douglas Mac Iver concludes
that chronically truant students are typically the ones who have disengaged
after facing bad teachers, bad curricula, and bad school culture year after
year. If school has become such a negative place for many of these truant
students, how will adding one more “bad” aspect to it change that?

Some cities have swung the pendulum and are trying a more
positive approach to curbing truancy.

Some cities have swung the pendulum and are trying a more
positive approach to curbing truancy. D.C. Mayor Vince Gray recently unveiled
plans for a new anti-truancy
campaign
, which will replace the stick with the carrot. Instead of
penalizing students for skipping school, district will try to help students
realize the importance of school attendance. Schools will work with historically
truant students and offer rewards for those with good attendance.

Similar initiatives are underway in Detroit, where the district emphasizes the
importance of bringing parents on board to support their child’s attendance. As
part of Detroit’s
push for improved attendance, parent workshops will be held and “attendance
agents” will hit the streets visiting homes of frequently truant students to
see what the district can do to help.

Perhaps these big-city districts can take a page from
charter schools, such as KIPP D.C.:
Key Academy where average daily attendance
reached ninety-six
percent
for the 2010-11 school year. These impressive numbers were
not reached by charging astronomical fines to every student who walks in the
school doors five minutes late; rather, KIPP schools engage students in
innovative and rigorous learning, provide high-quality teachers and school
leaders who form strong relationships with students and their families, and
build a positive school culture that holds students to high expectations.

Truancy is a major issue, with some schools reporting thirty
percent of their student population absent each day, but punishment is
ineffective. Truant students, by and large, are not criminals, but the victims
of criminally-bad schools. The fundamental way to boost attendance is to create
schools worth attending.

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