Truancy and the courts

Our view: Jailing the parents of kids who play hooky may only make the problem worse

Baltimore rightly focuses most of its effort on other strategies

May 01, 2011

When a student is chronically absent from class, school officials rightly hold parents responsible. Because school attendance in Maryland is compulsory until age 16, parents have a legal obligation to make sure their children show up for classes. If they don't, the courts can step in and compel them to comply with the law's requirements.

But a case reported Monday by The Sun's Erica Green demonstrated what happens when that is taken to an extreme. The city has hauled more than 400 parents into court this year because of their children's chronic truancy, and in a dozen cases, the parents have received sentences. In very rare instances, as with the mother of one 15-year-old student this year, the parents are actually sent to jail.

No doubt that conveys the seriousness of the matter to any parents who missed the message during the repeated interventions that led up to that point. But it's hardly the most effective or desirable way to keep kids in school. Educators know there are better ways to handle such situations and that they also have an obligation to work with parents to find solutions to the problem.

It's important to note that threatening jail time is hardly Baltimore's only tactic in the effort to reduce chronic absenteeism. In fact, the city is considered relatively progressive in its strategies to get kids in school and keep them there.

Often, improved student attendance can result from simply educating parents about the importance of school in their children's lives and the opportunities it creates. The place where children learn to value education most is in the home, and if parents are supportive of that process there's a good chance their kids will respond positively.

Beyond that, schools need to work with parents to find the causes of a student's chronic absenteeism and address those issues. Is the child avoiding school because he or she fears being bullied or harassed by classmates? Is there reliable public transportation to and from school throughout the year? Some kids are so overburdened by domestic responsibilities or caring for younger siblings when parents work nights outside the home that they end up too exhausted to drag themselves to school each morning. Others may suffer from health problems such as asthma or diabetes that too often land them in the hospital when they should be in class.

Experts say about 80 percent of chronic student absenteeism can be attributed to such underlying causes. In the remaining cases the problems are often more complex and intractable: substance abuse, mental illness, domestic violence, homelessness, teen pregnancy and poverty. In such cases school officials often must call on social service providers for assistance in helping families stabilize their situation in order to create the possibility for students to return to school. Such children can be further encouraged by mentoring programs that partner them with volunteers from local neighborhood and church groups.

To its credit, Baltimore has developed a range of policies in recent years to deal with chronic absenteeism that have resulted in a reduction in the number of truants from 8,000 in the 2007-2008 school year to 6,200 last year. That's significant progress, and it's come about through a comprehensive approach that includes everything from sending letters to parents of truant children at the beginning of each school year, to follow-up home visits by social workers, teachers and principals, to incentives at school that encourage good attendance through social events and prizes aimed at reinforcing positive behaviors.

There are many ways to reduce truancy beyond the punitive models of the past that relied on out-of-school suspensions as punishment for cutting classes. Kicking a kid out of school for a few days for truancy is wholly counterproductive since it in effect rewards the very bad behavior schools want to deter. It's far better to create a school culture in which students want to participate.

So is it ever appropriate to send a parent to jail? There may always be a small proportion of students and parents who seem incorrigible, but even in those cases the threat of court intervention is probably more effective than the act. It's impossible to say that there are never cases in which chronic absenteeism would be remedied by throwing a parent in the slammer, but they must be extraordinarily rare. Sending a parent to jail only results in less supervision for the children and does nothing to make him or her more effective.

The city should not abandon its use of the court system in particularly tough cases — penalties short of jail time, such as fines or community service, may produce compliance just as quickly and with far less disruption to families — but should make sure that tactic is never more than a tiny component of its effort to reduce truancy.

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