Truancy – D. Niemann, S. Russell, D. Hamilton

This material was originally posted on 31 July, but continuing discussion (most recent response from Steve Russell) prompted me to update the posting date to 6 August. rdj

I thought you might be interested in this email, which I just sent to 5,000 voters in the 47th District. Someone already responded to remind me that I forgot to mention I also introduced legislation that would have given the Juvenile Court more authority over truant children where the parents are not able to exercise control. It did not pass because of squabbles within the Prince George’s delegation, but (hopefully) I will be able to reintroduce it next year.

Doyle Niemann

Keeping Kids in School – Fighting Truancy

Last year, 6,500 students were absent from school for more than 25 days without excuse.

These were days not spent learning. As a Prince George’s County prosecutor, I also know there is a good chance many were also involved with daytime crime, drugs and underage sexual activity.

Holding parents accountable

Parents are legally required to see that their children attend school until the age of 16. The first step, then, is to hold parents accountable. Easily said; not so easily done.

It takes a high degree of cooperation between the school system, the Department of Juvenile Services, the State’s Attorney’s Office, and the Juvenile Court, and for a long time that cooperation hasn’t been there.

But that is changing. Over the last year, I have played a critical role in bringing all these groups together to focus on truancy.

A step-by-step approach

Working together, we have identified a four-part process:

(1) Schools, drawing on regional school resources, identify truant students and do their best to address any problems affecting attendance.

(2) Habitually truant students are referred to an interagency group that includes school representatives, juvenile justice officials, social workers and prosecutors for further screening.

(3) Parents are then summoned to appear before a Juvenile Court Judge, where they are informed about the law and its penalties (up to 10 days in jail and hefty fines). They are asked to sign an agreement that they will make sure their child goes to school. A social worker is present in case there are problems where outside help can make a difference.

(4) If attendance continues to be poor, truancy charges are filed against the parent.

Progress this year

This year, we summoned parents of truant students from Northwestern, Bladensburg and Laurel High Schools to come to court – with good results. Attendance improved.

Formal charges have been filed against more than 15 parents.

Looking ahead to the new school year, we plan to expand this endeavor to middle and elementary schools and to act quicker and more aggressively.

Mobilizing the community

We are also working to mobilize the larger community. Borrowing from successful efforts in Bowie and Laurel, we will be asking local businesses to not serve school-age children during school hours and to report truant students to local police.

Municipal and county police departments are being asked to pick truant students up and take them back to the school. Adults who encourage and assist truant students can also be charged with a criminal citation for aiding and encouraging truancy. This includes businesses that serve underage students.

School reforms

Getting the child back in school is the first step. But then, we need to confront why the child is truant and to help him or her make up for lost time.

In many cases, all that is required is more parent attention. That is what our legal initiative is aimed to encourage.

In other cases, however, more serious educational and family problems must be confronted. That is where we expect the school system and our social service agencies to step forward with remedial services and other forms of help.

An opportunity for adult interaction

In addition to school programs to help students catch up, community involvement and support are critical. Our schools can’t change attitudes and long-term habits alone. That’s where mentoring and other programs that involve our children and give them a chance to interact with adult role models are critical.

I wish I could say exactly what can and must be done in these areas, but specific steps must still be worked out in partnership with everyone involved.

I can promise that I will be involved and will do whatever I can to move the process of reclaiming our children forward.

Doyle Niemann

Doyle, your approach to truancy gave me the cold shivers, as I was a chronic truant and the burden of enforcement would have fallen on my elderly grandparents. The only thing that will slow down truancy is to make school a positive experience, which it never was to me until I arrived at the University of Texas.

If I understand the history of truancy laws, there were two purposes. To allow the cops to pick up kids who were hanging around when school was in session and to sanction parents who were obstructing public education by insisting on putting the kids to work (part of a package of child labor laws).

I tend to agree about the hanging around part. The place where I chose to hide was the public library.

Child labor does not appear to me to be a major social problem right now outside of farm workers. I hope I’m right about that.

But it seems to me that the major crusade against truancy would have to happen in schools. Until it does, I’m on the side of the truants. I quit for good in the ninth grade and my only regret was I didn’t quit sooner. The only thing I learned in school that was useful was typing, and that only took a couple of weeks.

Steve Russell

Truancy?

Brother Doyle, our very own Ragamuffin legislator and prosecutor,

I accidently spent more than 20 years in the Austin ISD as a special education teacher and counselor working with delinquent adolescents. In those capacities, I saw a lot of truancy offenders and worked on a continuous basis with school truant officers, parents, courts, et al. I also had a willful daughter who took a lengthy, unilateral and unscheduled sabbatical during high school. Besides, I personally spent many lovely days learning about such esoteric concepts as jazz in Mr. Murray’s record shop that would have otherwise been squandered being brainwashed at Highland Park High School.

My problem with your approach to this is that your initiative seems to place its ultimate emphasis on the stick, not the carrot. It’s also a one-size-fits-all approach. You may have been a prosecutor too long. Who were the 15 adults who had truancy charges filed against them? I would be willing to bet a sizeable sum that they were poor, single, unemployed, uneducated, unhealthy, possibly addicted or mentally ill and very largely dysfunctional for even their own care to begin with. Often the kids have far stronger personalities than these parents. Another large group of truants, often off the radar, are the teenage daughters of undocumented workers from underdeveloped countries where girls from poor and traditional families are sent to school for only a few years, if at all. Regardless of these parental shortcomings, the judge usually sees no improvement in the child’s situation by throwing his or her offending parent in jail. If they did, the state might have to assume full responsibility for the kid and they usually don’t have sufficient facilities. So, the criminal penalties are usually a toothless threat. What’s the point of fining somebody $200 a day when they don’t have money for rent or food or medical care or crack? And, as I am sure you are aware, the police on the beat are inherently less willing to devote their donut-eating time to messing around with adolescents skipping school who are especially hard to convict of anything, given the nature of juvenile courts.

I also wonder what are the long-term stats on truancy. I might be wrong, but I would hypothesize that as a social problem, truancy has a very long, consistent and persistent history, and the long-term trends are downward. Public education continues, as it has for decades, to partially educate, or at least supervise, an ever broader quotient of the general population. Most of those dropping out of its coverage are the rich going to private schools, who don’t want their kids fraternizing or being in a system burdened with special needs kids.

Problems with truancy are more effectively approached by helping failing parents meet their basic needs and by making schools more valuable and exciting places to be. Are the schools in Prince George’s County centers of adult education or community recreation programs when not in use by regular students?

Which leads to the question of why you latched on to truancy as a political priority. Is it really spiraling out of hand there? Might I also use this opportunity to suggest that while you are prioritizing, you devote some energy to countering the immeasurable social damage and impetus to crime that are the conspicuous results of the “war on drugs.”

In struggle from the easy chair,

David Hamilton

There are exceptions to every situation, Steve, and your situation may describe one. On the other hand, in our system, where a majority of students are poor and minority, few are hanging out at the library. Instead, what we have is a dropout culture of dead-ends that feeds on itself.

At some sociological level, it is all a symptom, perhaps, of the bankruptcy of modern society and the continuing reality of class structure, but that is a meaningless exercise in academic rationalization when it comes to figuring out what to do with a school system and 135,000 individual students, each of whom deserve as good an education as possible.

There is plenty of evidence that truancy breeds lack of opportunity, as well as continuing poverty and lack of opportunity. The truants, of course, don’t see it that way, but that is the reality at the end of the day for the vast majority. It is not good for them and it is not good for everyone around them who become the victims of wayward acts.

Yes, schools need to do a better of job of figuring out how to motivate and reach students who are being lost. We have 3,000 permanent ninth graders, for example. They are just putting in time till they drop out. But it is not that school leaders here (and in most places) are unaware of the problem. One of the positive things (and there aren’t many) about things like No Child Left Behind is that for the very first time, the reality of this is finally being measured. For decades, it was simply swept under the rug. Out of sight; out of mind.

It is all easy to talk about and incredibly hard to do. How do you motivate students whose entire life experience leaves them unresponsive? There are plenty of isolated examples of success, but when they are analyzed in any systematic way, it usually comes down to the quality of the people involved and their ability to motivate and inspire. Charisma is not a skill easily taught, however.

Holding parents “accountable” is not a magic solution. It won’t even work in many cases. But our experience so far shows that it does make a difference in a lot – maybe even the majority – of cases. That’s because it takes on the “culture” of truancy – the acceptance of it among students and parents. More than that, the rationalization of it.

In the end, no matter how we may want to romanticize it, 13-, 14-, 15-year-olds have little sense of the world and their role in it. These are the ages when habits are formed and when decisions are made – by young people caught up in incredible changes – that determine their future in very real and practical ways.

I still believe it is better for them to be in school – even in a less than perfect environment – than hanging out on the street.

Doyle Niemann

— There is plenty of evidence that truancy breeds lack of opportunity, as well as continuing poverty and lack of opportunity. The truants, of course, don’t see it that way, but that is the reality at the end of the day for the vast majority. It is not good for them and it is not good for everyone around them who become the victims of wayward acts. —

Evidence? The research I’ve seen sets up schooling as a proxy for education. It’s as valid as the proxy. I was one of five high school dropouts in my top tier law school class. I run into dropout professors often enough that I no longer feel special.

— It is all easy to talk about and incredibly hard to do. How do you motivate students whose entire life experience leaves them unresponsive? There are plenty of isolated examples of success, but when they are analyzed in any systematic way, it usually comes down to the quality of the people involved and their ability to motivate and inspire. Charisma is not a skill easily taught, however. —

Indeed it does turn on the quality of people. And the numbers will tell you that education students (I was one, you know) are bottom feeders. Starting salaries for schoolteachers will tell you why.

One really bad consequence of opening the professions to women in the 70s was that women started going into the professions. I jest, sorta. In the old days you had really bright women becoming school teachers for lack of opportunity. Now they are doctors and lawyers and engineers and various kinds of researchers. Most of my grad students are women. That is good, but schoolteachers still get “women’s wages.” And we get what we pay for.

— Holding parents “accountable” is not magic solution. It won’t even work in many cases. But our experience so far shows that it does make a difference in a lot – maybe even the majority of cases. That’s because it takes on the “culture” of truancy – the acceptance of it among students and parents. More than that, the rationalization of it. —

I still say truancy is as rational as the public schools are irrational. My daughter the high school dropout computer nerd makes very good dough.

— In the end, no matter how we may want to romanticize it, 13, 14, 15-year olds have little sense of the world and their role in it. These are the ages when habits are formed and when decisions are made – by young people caught up in incredible changes – that determine their future in very real and practical ways. —

On the contrary, kids of that age have highly developed bullshit detectors. As anybody with your New Left history knows, the first step to knowing what you want is knowing what you don’t want.

— I still believe it is better for them to be in school – even in less than perfect environment – than hanging out on the street. —

Doyle, my friend, I would absolutely agree with you if those were the choices.

Also, have you considered that the burden of enforcement, should there be enforcement, falls on single mothers who are told with the other side of the government’s mouth that they have to work rather than parent to get public assistance? And the grandparents like mine and the uncles and aunties who have tried to be the village it takes to raise a child?

May I make a very primitive suggestion? Primitive as in New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corps. Put them to work doing fairly hard labor with booklearning on the side for those so inclined.

The problem is not “out of school.” The problem is crappy schools and lack of options. I created my own options. I guided my kids by not handing them bullshit. “If you want to drop out, that’s fine, but I want you to have a plan.”

Paul went back and got a diploma so he could get in the Marine Corps (!!!). Mary never did go back.

But I know lots of folks besides myself who are living proof of the irrelevance of schooling to education. Schools babysit. They keep kids off the streets. That is a good, but it’s far from a good that justifies punitive measures to maintain the monopoly on babysitting.

Steve Russell

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