Nowadays, most truancy related matters are settled by the juvenile court system. Parents of truant children may be subject to court fines, possible jail time, and have their children removed from their home, then placed in foster care if their child violates truancy laws. Chronic absenteeism (i.e., truancy) in most states is now considered a criminal offense.
In this article, we examine if treating truancy as a crime is an effective approach. Before we delve into this question, it is important to understand why truancy is now a felony in most States.
The rise of truancy courts is a result of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB).
This law requires all school districts to report truancy data to the federal government. Although NCLB does not penalize schools for high truancy rates, it does punish districts for its school officials inability to test all its student population. Because most truants are not tested, their test scores are factored in as zeros. This of course negatively affects a school district’s overall performance results and possible federal funding. For this reason, state-level lawmakers call for harsher disciplining actions against truants and their parents.
States started to impose fines and imprisonment on truants and their parents as early as 2004. Since that time, according to the Education Commission of the States, one-third of the States have revised their truancy laws to reflect stiffer legal penalties for truants and their parents.
In spite of these stringent anti-truancy laws, absenteeism is still a problem in the United States. States, which have some of the toughest absenteeism laws in the U.S. such as Texas, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, are still dealing with truancy. The only difference now -in 2015- is that a greater number of students and parents can be apprehended for truancy. There is no reliable data that these laws deter kids from skipping school, boost parent accountability and involvement, or increase truants’ participation in standardized testing.
Advocates for strict absenteeism policies argue, that despite the lack of data, truancy laws provide “tangible” consequences for missing school.
According to them, truancy laws prevent truants’ from dropping out of school and engaging in high-risk behaviors. For instance, truancy courts can monitor students for drug and alcohol use, and can also order mental health screenings, home visits or removal to foster care. The courts can also nudge parents in taking an active role in preventing truancy among their children.
And, judges can enforce disciplinary actions against truants and their parents, whereas public schools cannot always do so. Supporters of truancy laws feel that standing in front of a judge makes students and their parents aware that truancy is not a joke but a serious matter.
However, some educators and policymakers are starting to question if these laws are fair to all students and their families.
Many of these laws do not always allow for exceptional circumstances. The courts require justifiable evidence to excuse a student from a number of school absences. Usually, judges will pardon a student with a medical or a family emergency. Anything else is typically punishable by jail time or a fine.
Most truancy laws do not take into account that some kids work to support their families and their financial situation may require them to miss school. Some youth are parents themselves and occasionally they are absent from school to care for a sick child. There are many valid reasons why students skip school, and it is not always to play hooky.
Truancy laws should not be completely decimated. But instead, state-lawmakers need to rethink how they define “truant behavior.” Criminalizing everyone may easier to enforce by the courts, but it is not always fair for students and their families.