Vol. 2, No. 9
ABA Commission on Youth at Risk
From Legal and Educational System Solutions for Youth: Report From a Leadership and Policy Forum on Truancy and Dropout Prevention. Executive Summary
Education is key to a successful and independent adult life, yet each day in the United States, hundreds of thousands of youth are absent from school. These youth, many of whom are truant, are at great risk of dropping out of school. Absence and truancy are powerful indicators that a youth will begin using drugs, commit assaults and property crimes, and fail to graduate from high school. As a nation we do not know how many are considered to be “truant” because truancy has yet to have a national definition. While there are no national truancy data available, many local jurisdictions report increasing rates of truancy and chronic absenteeism correlating to increased crime and a host of other negative circumstances for our communities.
From the period of 1995 to 2007 alone, the number of court-petitioned truancy cases processed by juvenile courts went up by a staggering 67% (from 34,100 cases in 1995 to 57,000 cases in 2007). 1 When a child is missing school without a legitimate reason, it can often be an indicator of a more serious personal or family issue at home, and it can be a precursor to juvenile delinquency system involvement. This report, based upon findings and recommendations from a national invitational “summit” meeting on legal issues related to truancy and school dropout, provides a general overview of policy and practices that relate to the cycle of attendance problems, truancy and dropping out. Its purpose is to further generate awareness of the law-related issue of truancy, its connection to school dropout, and to facilitate national attention on how to best create new law and policy that will turn the growing tide of children and youth becoming disengaged in school and poor high school graduation rates.
Risk Factors Affecting Truancy and Dropout Rates
Truancy has been clearly identified as an early warning sign for potential substance abuse, delinquency, teen pregnancy, and dropping out of school:
- Truancy is associated with increased odds of first time substance use, and if an adolescent has already begun using, truancy is related to a substantial escalation of use. 2
Many jurisdictions have found connections between higher truancy rates and higher rates of daytime crimes, including assaults, burglary and vandalism.
In Contra Costa County, California, police reported that 60 percent of juvenile crime occurred between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays, when children should have been in school.
Truancy has been identified as a likely precursor to serious nonviolent and violent offenses among youth.
The number of truant youth held in juvenile detention is on the rise.
Teens who are more involved in school are less likely than their uninvolved peers to get pregnant.
Young teen mothers are less likely to graduate from high school. Only 38 percent of mothers who have a child before they turn 18 have a high school diploma. 5
Parenthood is a leading cause of school dropout among teen girls—30 percent of teen girls cited pregnancy or parenthood as a reason for dropping out of high school. 6
Each year, five of every 100 high school students drop out of school. 7
Nationally, one in five students who start high school does not finish. 8
Over the last decade, between 347,000 and 544,000 tenth through twelfth grade students left school each year without completing high school. 9
Students who drop out of school are more likely to be unemployed, earn only 65% of the amount earned by high school graduates 10 (a difference in lifetime earnings of $200,000), 11 experience higher levels of early pregnancy and substance abuse problems,
require more social services, and are more likely to be arrested or incarcerated. 12
Because truancy can result in so many negative outcomes for youth, it is essential to address the issue of absenteeism in school well before it becomes a truancy problem. The key to success is prevention. New research from a nine-city study of excessive absence in K-1, excused or unexcused, has shown clear prediction of later poor achievement, truancy and dropping out. 13 Programs that address unexcused absences before a child is labeled a truant and encourage attendance are critical. Effective preventive strategies that keep youth engaged in school and in the community and demonstrate effective collaboration between the legal and education systems will help prevent truancy and ultimately reduce the number of school dropouts. In so doing, juvenile crime may decrease as well as teen pregnancy, and substance abuse. Currently, there are a number of programs and strategies being implemented throughout the country that are promising, and are summarized below from the recommendations of the work groups.
Challenges to Intervention Programs
Once students are in middle or high school, intervention-style truancy programs typically replace the preventive, pre-court strategies often seen in elementary schools. Truancy in middle school is closely tied to being at risk for dropping out. The truants become the later dropouts. Truancy in high school is often ignored when students reach or approach the maximum age of compulsory attendance. Intervention services in middle school are essential to prevent the loss of learning from being absent that creates low academic performance. This vicious cycle of poor school attendance and chronic truancy resulting in poor performance feeds on itself in causing the dropout problem. This report includes many examples of both prevention and intervention programs
Common Themes for Programs and Strategies from the Recommendations
There are several common threads that tie the intervention and prevention approaches presented in this report together. Each section has specific recommendations. The broad themes can be found in the following general recommendations:
The sooner parents become involved in the process and in identifying the causes behind their child’s absences, the greater the chances are of correcting the behavior. Whether parental notification simply means a letter or call home, pairing the family with a trained volunteer, or setting up a mediation session—programs that encourage parental involvement, before reaching the courts, have been more successful in keeping children in school.
Coordinating Legal and School System Approaches
Involving lawyers and judges in preventative practices gives children and families a better understanding of the truancy process and underscores the importance of pre-court efforts. Students and families will then have a more positive impression of the legal system as one that is as rehabilitative as it can be punitive. Contact between the courts, the child, the parents, school officials, and service providers -- within the school --reinforces the idea that the legal community is an available resource for struggling youth.
By giving each student a mentor or advocate to monitor his or her progress and encourage his or her improvement and growth, truancy prevention approaches become more individualized. This support, which needs to include the family, requires continuous monitoring and helps each student connect to available resources that are tailored to his or her needs.
Training for Legal and Judicial Professionals
Although there are many programs that successfully integrate school and legal system approaches to prevent truancy, there has been very limited guidance for lawyers and judges on preventing truancy or on processing truancy cases.
Standardized Agreed-upon Definition of Truancy and Dropout
One of the consistent problems we hear is that truancy and dropout are defined in very different ways depending on the state, county, and even school. In order to implement effective remedies, it is critical that we develop a shared framework and definition for these terms, so that more uniform solutions can be implemented. States recently approved a consistent definition for graduation rates through the help of the National Governors Association. Perhaps we can now get attention to uniform definitions for truancy and drop out.