Tackling truancy at its source

Getting more of Baltimore's children into school requires a comprehensive approach that emphasizes early intervention and family outreach rather than punishment

June 11, 2008|By Barbara Babb and Gloria Danziger

Is giving a student an alarm clock part of the answer to truancy in Baltimore?

Experience tells us that it can be. But make no mistake: There's no simple answer to this vexing problem. There are, however, a number of things that we know can help.

In the University of Baltimore School of Law's Truancy Court Program, we work with students every week who are in danger of joining the thousands of city children who do not attend school. Since 2005, we have learned a few things about what connects truancy, suspension, dropping out, crime and violence. We know, first and foremost, that we need to address truant behavior as early as possible in a child's life, preferably in the elementary and middle school years.

We have learned that the most effective way to intervene is not to punish, but to identify the issues underlying truant behavior and to try to address them. We know that a child's parent or caregiver must be involved in the process. We also understand that there are no quick fixes to these problems, because tragedies and hardships often afflict the children's lives.

Some problems we see time and again: asthma, poverty, lack of a school uniform, fear of gang violence, sick or elderly family members at home who need care. Nonetheless, each student comes to the Truancy Court Program with unique family issues, background and perspective. For example, two sisters came to our program because their parents took them out of school to visit relatives in Mexico. One ninth-grade special-education student had anger management issues coupled with grief resulting from his grandfather's death. Another student bravely attempted to hide his homelessness.

In seven schools across Baltimore, teams of judges, law students and professors, school administrators, mentors, volunteer tutors and teachers meet weekly with a student and his or her family to talk about their situation. We plot strategies to solve problems and rely on our partners to collaborate with us to check on each student's progress. A strategy may be no more complicated than putting together a schedule for a parent and child so that they can organize their day to focus on the child's getting to school on time, finishing his or her homework and getting to bed early enough to get a good night's sleep. It may be as basic as asking a mother to remove the television or computer games from her child's room until the child gets in the habit of going to school on time every day. And, yes, we provide students with alarm clocks.

We also ask teachers to move a student's seat away from distractions. We provide a mother with a double stroller so that she can walk her children to school without leaving younger children at home alone. And we contact a local hospice for help when a child is staying home to take care of a bedridden family member.

Do these strategies work? Our preliminary data indicate a 75 percent increase in attendance for the vast majority of students during their participation in the Truancy Court Program session. We also are seeing longer-term effects, with fewer unexcused absences following a student's involvement in the program.

Unfortunately, we also have observed the tragic consequences of taking action too late. Families and children become hardened, even numbed, by years of frustration and neglect on the part of overworked teachers, administrators and even family members.

One 12-year-old student, for example, came to our program as a seventh-grader who had missed school for three months. Her explanation: She did not like school because she found it boring. But the reasons for her truancy were far more complex. The child was sexually active and hanging out with older girls who drank, smoked marijuana and stayed out all night. Her mother did not have the parenting skills to discipline her appropriately. Sadly, four years earlier at a different school, teachers had noticed early signs of troubling behavior and identified her as in need of services. Because there was no forwarding address for the girl when she changed schools, however, the first school did not communicate with the second school. In contrast, we at times spend hours hunting for a working cell phone number, the correct street address or the telephone number of a relative or friend who might know how to locate a particular student.

We let children and their families know that we are there for them, thus offering a consistent, supportive and watchful presence in their lives every day. It is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Our mentor coordinator stays in touch with the students and their families. He gives each student his cell phone number and regularly calls the students and their caregivers to check on attendance and academic progress.

Until our society devotes the necessary time and energy to design and implement effective programs to help truant children and their families at all stages of truancy, the tide of teenage dropouts and violence that plagues our city will continue. The Truancy Court Program is not intended to be a last resort; it should be the beginning of a continuum of services for our troubled students. The program is not a panacea or a solution to chronic truancy. Right now, however, it is often the best we can do to reconnect children, families and schools.

Barbara Babb is a University of Baltimore School of Law professor and director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts, which operates the Truancy Court Program. Gloria Danziger is a senior fellow at the center.

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