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.
Category: Additional Topics
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About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
May 16, 2013
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