Locking up parents is no answer for truancy

May 03, 2011

We write to commend The Baltimore Sun for the editorial, "Truancy and the courts" (May 1), calling for a continuum of interventions to reverse the epidemic of chronic absence that continues, despite some improvement, in the Baltimore City Public Schools. Our experience tells us that the approach described in the article — measures ranging from educating parents about the importance of school to intensive social services — is the most effective way to identify and address the root causes underlying truant behavior.

While the courtroom may be a last resort for a frustrated school system that contends with thousands of truant students each day, the courtroom is no substitute for an intensive intervention that identifies exactly why a student is missing school. Additionally, filing a statement of charges cannot and should not replace working with families and children to provide the support and guidance they need in order to make education and attendance top priorities in their lives.

The University of Baltimore School of Law Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) has operated such a program, the Truancy Court Program, in several Baltimore City Public Schools for six years. Every week for 10 weeks during both the fall and spring semesters, a volunteer district or circuit court judge and a team of school administrators, teachers, social workers, counselors and CFCC staff meet individually with truant students in the school — not the courthouse. The team assesses why each student is missing school and works with the students and their families to resolve the underlying issue in order to get these students back to school every day and on time.

The Truancy Court Program is effective, with well over half the participants graduating from it, as measured by a 75 decrease in unexcused absences and/or tardies. What is the secret of this success? A powerful combination of compelling role models, compassionate mentors, firm discipline and a team-based and problem-solving approach surrounds students and their families with ongoing and consistent support. There is not a court in the country that can do all that. Just ask Baltimore City Circuit Court Judge David Young.

Judge Young jailed parents of truant students, and he even achieved a certain notoriety for his decisions with an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. Judge Young had an epiphany, however, when he began to serve as a volunteer Truancy Court Program judge. He realized that the traditional criminal justice methods did not work. Instead, as he freely admitted, the therapeutic, holistic and compassionate approach of the Truancy Court Program was far more effective.

While we understand that there must always be a "last resort" and that the threat of jail may work in the short-term in some cases, we believe that a continuum of interventions — beginning at the earliest possible point — is much more effective and in line with true educational reform. CFCC has approached the Baltimore City Public Schools to propose expanding the Truancy Court Program. Until now, funding has come from the Maryland Administrative Office of the Courts and private foundations, including the Charles Crane Family Foundation and the Wright Family Foundation. It simply does not make sense that we are unable to operate this highly effective program in each school that wants it.

As a community, we must strive to make every child believe in himself or herself and to persuade every parent and child that education matters. Then, and only then, will we see lasting improvement in school attendance and graduation rates.

Barbara A. Babb and Gloria Danziger, Baltimore

Ms. Babb is associate professor of law and director of the Center for Families, Children and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law. Ms. Danziger is a senior fellow at the Center for Families, Children and the Courts.

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