ERIC Identifier: ED480916
Publication Date: 2003/09/00
Author: Walls, Charles
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Urban Education, Institute for
Urban and Minority Education
New Approaches to Truancy Prevention in Urban Schools.
In New York City alone, it has been estimated that 150,000 of 1 million
public school students are absent on a typical schoolday (Garry, 1996).
Although the exact number is unknown, many of these absences are the result
of truancy. No universal definition for truancy exists, but it is generally
defined as a locally-determined number of absences from school without
a legitimate excuse. Truancy is generally considered a major risk factor
for dropping out of school and for delinquent behavior, including substance
abuse, gang involvement, and criminal activity; these often lead to more
serious problems in adult life. This digest will explore truancy in the
urban context, examine the different types and reasons for truancy, and
provide an overview of the new ways in which researchers and intervention
programs have been addressing this problem.
The Urban and Minority Context
No national data on truancy rates exists, but many large cities report
staggeringly high rates of truancy (Baker, Sigman, & Nugent, 2001);
in general, larger schools have higher rates of truancy (Puzzanchera, Stahl,
Finnegan, Tierney, & Snyder, 2003). The relationship between race and
truancy is not well established, but the truancy data collected by the
juvenile court system reveal that whites are underrepresented in petitioned
truancy cases (Bell, Rosen, & Dynlacht, 1994; Puzzanchera et al., 2003).
Students with the highest truancy rates are at higher risk of dropping
out of school (Baker et al., 2001), and African Americans and Latinos consistently
have the highest dropou trates (Kaufman, Alt, & Chapman, 2001). The
relationship between income and truancy is also not well established, but
it is generally believed that students from lower income families have
higher rates of truancy (Bell et al., 1994). The number of truancy cases
is evenly divided between boys and girls, and the peak age for petitioned
truancy cases is fifteen (Puzzanchera etal., 2003).
Truancy: A Few Types and a Multitude of Reasons
Although cutting class and truancy are not generally thought of as synonymous,
researchers have found that about 40 percent of extreme truancy cases in
Chicago occur because of class cutting. They have also found that truants
are often in and around school and that tardiness may also account for
truancy. In general, then, two types of truants exist: those who cut or
miss class and those who miss full days. Because of the cyclical nature
of these absences, both types of truancy require early intervention (Roderick
et al., 1997).
Many reasons, which have been generalized into four categories, explain
why truants do not attend school (from Baker etal., 2001, unless otherwise
Family. These include lack of guidance or parental supervision,
drug or alcohol abuse, lack of awareness of attendance laws, and differing
views about education.
School. These include factors such as school environment (school
size, attitudes of teachers, students, and administrators), an inability
to engage the diverse cultural and learning styles of minority students,
inconsistent attendance policies, and lack of meaningful consequences.
Economics. These include employed students, single-parent homes,
a lack of affordable transportation and child care, high mobility rates,
and parents with multiple jobs.
Student. Factors include drug and alcohol abuse, misunderstanding
or ignorance of attendance laws, physical and emotional ill-health, lack
of incentive (Bell et al., 1994), lack of school-engaged friends, and lack
of proficiency in English (Rohrman, 1993).
Low academic achievement and weak basic skills are other major reasons
for truancy, but even the highest achieving students may be labeled truants
because they cut class. Warning signs are often evident in the elementary
school years (Rodericket al.; Mogulescu & Segal, 2002). In many cases,
the siblings of these students also have attendance problems and the use
of family therapy has been strongly recommended and effective as a form
of intervention (Sheverbush & Sadowski, 1994). For high school students,
attendance problems begin early and worsen as the school year progresses;
the transition to high school can be especially difficult. Schools that
do not consistently challenge students, set and enforce high standards
of behavior, and provide personal support encourage student disengagement
(Roderick et al., 1997).
Multimodal Intervention Programs
One of the key features of truancy intervention is a collaborative,
or multimodal, approach that involves some combination of community stakeholders:
schools, juvenile courts, and law enforcement agencies, as well as parents,
community organizations, and social services agencies (Baker et al., 2001;
Bell etal., 1994; Mogulescu & Segal, 2002). This approach takes into
account the many risk factors that underlie truancy.
Early prevention programs that focus on elementary schoolchildren view,
as do most researchers, parents as responsible for their children’s failure
to attend school. The Truancy Prevention Through Mediation Program in Ohio
invites parents to a mediation session after parental notifications fail
to improve their children’s attendance. During the mediation sessions stake-holders
identify the reasons for truancy and agree on a plan of action. In Broward
County, Florida, the Broward Truancy Intervention Program uses a computer
system to track and notify parents of their children’s absences. Subsequent
actions include a conference with parents and, if necessary, misdemeanor
charges against them.
Applying the principle that truancy is often a result of emotional,
familial, and environmental factors, some middle and high school
intervention programs use a continuum of increa-ingly intensive interagency
participation to avoid court involvement. In Ramsey County, Minnesota,
for example, the Truancy Intervention Program has three stages: (1) an
informational meeting on the laws and legal consequences regarding truancy;
(2) the collaboration of school representatives (including counselors),
the assistant county attorney, parents, and students to create an attendance
contract; (3) the filing of a petition to the juvenile court.
In instances where school-based interventions have failed and the truancy
case has reached the court docket, judges may issue alternatives to standard
court sanctions. Such programs allow the court to target specific education
and other needs of the child. In Atlanta, Georgia, the Truancy Intervention
Program assigns a court-appointed volunteer attorney who supports and represents
truant children of all grade levels; the court may impose supervision,
counseling, and education programs. Seventy-five percent of these students
avoid subsequent contact with the juvenile court (Mogulescu & Segal,
Court Intervention: A Special Role
The juvenile justice system is increasingly being used as a final stop
and as a mechanism for intervening in truancy (Bakeret al., 2001). It plays
an important role in the collaborative effort to combat truancy, and in
some states, such as New York, it is the first method of intervention.
However, courts often do not effectively enforce truancy laws. Many families
are not intimidated by courts insofar as truancy is concerned (Rohrman,1993;
American Bar Association [ABA], 2001). Removing parents from the home by
sending them to jail or putting children in non-secure detention or foster
care is often counterproductive, because such measures are traumatic for
the families, highly cost-ineffective, and often take students out of school
(Garry,1996; Mogulescu & Segal, 2002; ABA, 2001).
The Truancy Diversion Programs in Louisville, Baltimore,and Phoenix
represent a more effective use of the courts. They bring the court into
the school and utilize its atmosphere of formality and consequence in a
non-punitive manner. These programs work on three principles: (1) because
truancy often emerges from family conditions, the courts identify and treat
the underlying causes in the family; (2) because it is more productive
to keep students in the school setting, the courts hold weekly mock court
sessions on school premises and put families in regular contact with the
judge; (3) because many people give up on truants, the court uses positive
reinforcement of the participants’ efforts, regardless of their failings
Some truants continue to have problems with attendance despite these
intervention efforts. The use of an alternativeschool that is designed
specifically for truants may be a successful way to help them. The Dekalb
Truancy School in Dekalb County, Georgia, for example, serves up to 75
court-referred students each semester. Students in this program have average
or above-average intelligence but below-average academic skills; individualized
instruction is a key feature of the program. The students also learn conflict
management, problem-solving, leadership, and teamwork skills (McGiboney,
The programs featured in this digest help to reduce truancy and involvement
with the juvenile court system; they are cost-effective and tailored to
urban schools. However, no one program will accommodate the needs of every
school and community. Urban schools, which have higher numbers of low-income
and minority students, should develop truancy programs that address the
social and cultural needs of these populations and maintain their efforts
in a collaborative and multi-agency setting. Evaluations reveal that this
collaboration requires clearly defined roles and continuing, community-wide
education, as well as data-driven methods to track its effectiveness (Baker
et al., 2001). The payoff has been marked improvements for families, students,
schools, and communities.
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