Guest Column

The New Face of Truancy

by WILLIAM R. CAPPS

Student truancy has become a pervasive problem in our schools. It is not uncommon for many students entering the middle grades to have accumulated 180 days of questionable absences, the equivalent of a full school year.

No conclusive national data tracks the extent of truancy, but some indicators reveal the problem has become rampant. Education Week reported that in 1997 the average daily absentee rate in high schools was approximately 7 percent. While this may appear low, it masks the fact that the average student is missing 13 days of school each year.

While our stereotype of the truant is that of a high school student on a lark, truancy has a new and younger face. It is the face of Amber, a 2nd grader in Kentucky who missed almost 60 school days in 2000. The younger age of truants indicates the problem has as much to do with parents as with children.

Several states, including Alabama, Illinois, Kentucky and Michigan, have passed tough new statutes that subject parents of chronic truants to criminal fines and incarceration. An Alabama judge ordered one parent to serve a two-month jail term for condoning truancy. Likewise, an Illinois parent was twice sentenced to jail for the truancy of her teen-age children.

Shared Responsibility
Two factors appear to be crucial to successfully intervene with this problem. First, truancy must be viewed as a community priority by the schools, social service agencies and law enforcement. Second, referral of truants by schools and law enforcement to the courts must be docketed and expedited for immediate action.

Truancy is not on the radar screen for many citizens when it comes to issues of law and order, but existing research suggests it is a gateway to crime and deserves communitywide attention. According to the U. S. Department of Education, truancy is “the most powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behavior.” If not aggressively pursued, truancy can wreak havoc on communities in terms of petty crimes and patterns of violence.

The courts are notoriously slow in dealing with truancy cases. This reality is well illustrated in Dallas County, Texas. According to The Dallas Morning News, an analysis by the Dallas Independent School District found that truancy cases sat in courts an average of 73 days before a hearing was conducted. Some cases languished for up to 160 days.

School administrators and other school personnel would be well advised to cultivate personal and professional relationships with court administrators, district attorneys and judges to better inform them of relevant truancy statutes and the need for swift resolution.

Real Consequences
Truants often perceive the world around them as unstable and confusing. Many come from dysfunctional families with weak internal structures, high conflict and emotional insecurity. In the school setting, truants question their academic prowess, exhibit low self-esteem and have difficulty establishing positive relations with peers and school staff. Confrontation is often the hallmark of their school experience.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley once noted: “Truancy is the first warning sign we have that a young person may be giving up hope.” That hope can be restored but school districts must intervene with a firm and empathetic hand. Strong attendance policies should be adopted, publicized and enforced.

The message must be that truancy will not be tolerated and real consequences exist for students and parents.

Many districts have established counseling programs for truants and their families, created before- and afterschool truant support groups and instituted corporate mentoring programs aligned with the career interests of these students. Some districts also have developed specialized tutoring programs designed to build the academic efficacy of truants.

The most important message to communicate to the truant student is that someone cares whether he or she is in school and is experiencing some degree of success.

In a real sense, the truant is a child asking for help, seeking to belong and be connected to an inviting, stable and nurturing world. With a little effort on our part, the school can be such a world.

William Capps, a former superintendent in North Carolina, is chair of the department of educational leadership at Troy State University, P.O. Box 8368, Dothan, AL 36304. E-mail: rcapps@ala.net