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
- Truancy is also a predictor of middle school drug use. Truant 8th graders were 4.5 times more likely than regular school attendees to start using marijuana.3
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 graduates10 (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.
Summary of Recommendations from Summit
Prevention Strategies for Youth & Family/Caregiver Engagement
- Any re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act should include a new provision that standardizes the measure of attendance rates.
- The re-authorization of the No Child Left Behind Act should include new provisions that provide monetary incentives for comprehensive truancy reform programs.
- Schools should use successful intervention and prevention programs to combat truancy that includes four core elements: evaluation, communication/education, intervention and prevention recovery, and individualized assessments.
- There should be greater use of the Parental Involvement provision of the No Child Left Behind Act to ensure parents and caregivers are involved in developing comprehensive truancy prevention and intervention programs.
- Schools must better educate students on the importance of school attendance and the future potential negative outcomes of not earning a high school education.
- Local government leaders must encourage and develop partnerships between local schools and the community.
- Schools should create a more welcoming environment for students and parents.
- Schools should educate parents on the links between truancy and dropping out of school.
- Local community organizations should partner with schools to develop parental leadership training classes.
Law, Policy & Practice Strategies
- Schools and courts should collaborate to provide a continuum of services and interventions for truant youth and youth at-risk of dropping out.
- A national definition for “chronic absenteeism” should be adopted in order to quickly identify youth with attendance problems and distribute responsibility to stakeholders and support systems: families, courts and educators.
- A model state statute should be developed through the careful evaluation of the effective components of states’ current laws.
- States must prohibit the detention of status offenders, including truants, and develop effective alternatives to secure detention (“ASDs”)
- An office should be created within the federal Department of Education that addresses truancy and dropout issues.
Legal and Educational System Solutions for Youth
School, Court, & Community Intervention, Policy & Practices
- Develop Truant Redirection Initiatives such as Youth Courts. Initiatives such as Youth Courts reduce the use of punitive status offense responses in a traditional court setting. Youth Courts emphasize positive alternatives encouraging children to stay in school and succeed and minimizes withholding education as punishment.
- Enhance School-Court Collaborations. If schools and courts collaborate in their efforts to reduce truancy, rather than dealing with the problem independently of one another, youth will benefit from the resources available through both systems.
- Create a multi-system response to truancy. The development of a comprehensive, multisystem response to truancy is essential to achieve the goal of reducing unexcused absences and the over-utilization of exclusionary practices, or “push-out.” This strategy would identify at-risk children and truant youth and provide a multitude of services including legal assistance by attorneys, guidance from the courts, and a spectrum of child and family-focused community programs that would reduce the risk of truancy.
- Use Individually-Tailored Attendance Plan Contracts. The basic purpose of the contract is for the child to agree, in writing, to not have any more unexcused absences or face possible court involvement. Attendance contracts are usually part of a continuum of intervention measures taken by the school to remedy a child’s truancy problem
- Produce Frequent Attendance Audit Reports. Student performance is measured using multiple methods as defined by federal, state, community and district-based requirements. While public school administrators, teachers and support staff are under a great deal of pressure to produce positive academic performance through tests, academic accountability can also be improved by requiring a periodic audit of attendance and exclusionary practices.
Funding & Sustainability Strategies
- As state or federal requests for proposals are formulated for allocating grant funds for services to at-risk youth, funders should require or encourage courts and schools to work together to provide services to youth and their families.
- School Districts, State Education Agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education should create incentives to use ESEA Title 1 Grants for low-income students who exhibit poor attendance and truancy at all levels, from kindergarten to high school.
- Change school finance laws so that they are based on average daily attendance that rewards districts financially that demonstrate good attendance, while providing incentive grants to those making progress in improving attendance.
- Federal and state agencies should gather consistent data collection about the nature and extent of truancy and dropouts, and this needs to begin with national definitions of “truancy,” “attendance,” “enrollment,” “dropout” and “re-engagement or recovery.”
- Include attendance, truancy and dropout improvements as “recommended” enhancements to existing federal programs that might include: 21st Century Community Learning Centers, Safe Schools, Healthy Students programs, McKinney-Vento homeless grants, OJJDP block grants, WIA, JJDPA Act and ESEA reauthorizations currently pending.
Educational Neglect Findings
- Using the dependency system and alleging charges of educational neglect against parent to address truancy can lead to increased availability of community-based services. This avenue should be used when the potential benefits outweigh the risks to the family.
- Filing a truancy petition against a child can provide some rehabilitative services, but the punitive nature could result in out-of-home placement of the child. This should be done with great care.
- Using the criminal justice system by filing charges against parents because a child is truant will likely result in very little focus on the child, and should therefore be avoided if possible.
Truancy prevention and intervention programs are best coordinated as a community problem involving the schools, courts, law enforcement and communities. Successful programs involve parents, offer youth mentors/case management services and encourage collaboration between schools and courts. Given the lifelong detrimental effects that truancy predicts, it is essential that systems work together to engage children, parents, caregivers, schools, and government leaders to implement proactive preventive measures to combat truancy and ultimately reduce school dropout rates.
Legal and Educational System Solutions for Youth
AMERICAN BAR ASSOCIATION COMMISSION ON YOUTH AT RISK
RESOLUTIONS APPROVED BY THE ABA HOUSE OF DELEGATES ON AUGUST 3, 2009
Advancing the Right to High Quality Education
RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal and state legislatures to pass laws, and national, state, and local education agencies to implement policies:
- To help secure the right of every child to a high quality education, including, specifying the elements of that right and fostering its consistent provision to all by schools and local, state, and federal agencies;
- To improve implementation and enforcement of existing provisions of law and policy designed to enable students to obtain elements of a high quality education;
- To enable and assist students and their parents and their representatives in participating in decisions affecting their right to quality education and in understanding and utilizing existing provisions of law and policy and remedying deficiencies in their implementation and enforcement through administrative and judicial relief; and
FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges state and local bar associations, and attorneys to:
- Seek improvements in state and federal law to protect and advance the right to high quality education, including the enactment of remedies to secure that right administratively and judicially;
- Make legal representation available to parents, students, and organizations seeking to enforce provisions of state and federal law related to the right to high quality education, in administrative and judicial proceedings; and
- Provide community legal education and other assistance to parents, students, community organizations, schools, and school systems to aid in understanding and obtaining improved implementation of laws that protect and advance the right to high quality education.
Helping Youth Remain In School
RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal and state legislatures to pass laws and national, state, and local education, child welfare, and juvenile justice agencies to implement and enforce policies that:
- Help advance the right to remain in school, promote a safe and supportive school environment for all children, and enable them to complete school;
- Limit exclusion from and disruption of students’ regular educational programs as a response to disciplinary problems;
- Provide full procedural protections, including the opportunity to have representation by counsel in proceedings to exclude students from their regular education program, appropriate provisions of due process in other school disciplinary processes, and implementing disciplinary procedures in a fair, nondiscriminatory and culturally responsive manner;
- Reduce criminalization of truancy, disability-related behavior, and other school-related conduct; and
- Establish programs and procedures to assist parents, caregivers, guardians, students, and their legal representatives in understanding and exercising student rights to remain in school; and
FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges federal and state legislatures to legally define, and assure standardized on-going monitoring, reporting, and accountability for, measuring graduation rates, school dropout rates, school truancy, and disciplinary violations resulting in student suspensions and expulsions, with data disaggregated by race, disability and other disparately affected populations, and ensure that no group of students is disparately subjected to school discipline or exclusion.
Helping Youth Resume Their Education
RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges enactment and implementation of statutes and policies that support the right of youth who have left school to return to school to complete their education in high-quality, age-appropriate programs.
FURTHER RESOLVED, That the American Bar Association urges the enactment of laws and policies that establish programs and procedures to encourage and assist parents, students, and their legal representatives in understanding and exercising student rights to resume their education.
1. Benjamin Adams, Charles Puzzanchera & Melissa Sickmund, Nat’l Ctr. for Juvenile Justice, Juvenile Court Statistics 2006–2007 72 (2010), available at http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/njcda/pdf/jcs2007.pdf.
2. Kimberly L. Henry & Terence P. Thornberry, Truancy and Escalation of Substance Use During Adolescence, 71 J. ON THE STUDY OF ALCOHOL & DRUGS 115 (2010).
3. Denise Hallfors et al., Truancy, Grade Point Average, and Sexual Activity: A Meta-Analysis of Risk Indicators for Youth Substance Use, 72 J. OF SCH. HEALTH 205, 205–11 (2002).
4. Myriam L. Baker, Nady Sigmon, & M. Elaine Nugent, U.S. Dep’t of Justice, TRUANCY REDUCTION: KEEPING STUDENTS IN SCHOOL (Sept. 2001), available at https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/188947.pdf.
5. Kate Perper, Kristen Peterson & Jennifer Manlove, CHILD TRENDS, FACT SHEET: DIPLOMA ATTAINMENT AMONG TEEN MOTHERS 2 (2010), available at http://www.childtrends.org/Files/Child_Trends2010_01_22_FS_ DiplomaAttainment.pdf.
6. The Nat’l Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, WHY IT MATTERS: TEEN PREGNANCY AND EDUCATION 1 (2010), available at
7. Nat’l Ctr. for Educ. Statistics, U.S. Dept of Educ., DROPOUT RATES IN THE UNITED STATES: 2000,
http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2002/droppub_2001/ (last visited Sept. 10, 2011).
10. Nat’l Ctr. for Sch. Engagement, TOOL KIT FOR CREATING YOUR OWN TRUANCY REDUCTION PROGRAM,
https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/pr/217271.pdf (last visited Sept. 10, 2011).
11. Wendy Schwartz, New Information on Youth Who Drop Out: Why They Leave and What Happens to Them 4, available at http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED396006.pdf (last visited Sept. 10, 2011).
13. Nat’l Ctr. for Children in Poverty, Columbia U., Poverty, Present, Engaged, and Accounted for: The Critical Importance of Addressing Chronic Absence in Early Grades, available at http://nccp.org/publications/pdf/text_837.pdf.