Since the first schoolhouse was built and students came through the doors, educators have had to figure out ways to get them there on time and keep them coming back. Truancy and its sibling, tardiness, have many detrimental campus impacts that tax classroom planning and school budgets.
Education is compulsory for all children in the United States. However, the mandatory age for enrollment varies. Some states require schooling as early as 5, and others as late as 8; some states require attendance until age 16 and others until 18. If students fall within the required age range and their absence is not excused, they are considered truant.
Just how bad of a problem is truancy? A few examples:
•In Philadelphia, more than 12,000 students are truant on any given day, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.
•During 2008, nearly half of the students in Milwaukee Public Schools had at least five unexcused absences each semester. According to a state legislative bureau, Milwaukee’s truancy rate of 46 percent was five times higher than the state average.
•Heading into the 2010-11 school year, Pittsburgh Public Schools reported a 37 percent truancy rate.
•In San Diego, 44 percent of violent juvenile crime takes place between 8:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.—a time when adolescents should be in school.
•In an attempt to cut back on violence by and against school-age children, police in Oakland, Calif., earlier this year identified the "Top 10" truants in the local school district and paid visits to the students’ parents.
Many districts regularly have students (and their parents) arrested for violating truancy laws. Students may be sent to juvenile hall or face the loss of driving privileges. Parents or guardians may be fined and sent to jail. In the worst cases, children may become wards of the court.
Nearly all school districts have procedures that lead to phone calls or letters to parents of students with unexcused absences. Many have programs that involve administrators, counselors, social workers and other staff to meet and work with parents and students to try to solve the problem. Some cities are paying for after-school programs to keep kids interested in learning.
Paying the price
With high truancy rates in many schools, it’s difficult for a teacher to keep instruction on track. Helping truants catch up with classwork may slow down other students who attend school regularly and on time.
Then there is the problem of what truants do when they are not in school. Often they become involved with theft, vandalism, drug dealing, gang activity and other crimes. And it’s not unusual for many of those activities to occur on school property. That leads to further classroom disruptions and expenditures to repair or replace property.
As truancies and tardiness add up, students fall further behind in their studies. Frustration sets in, and students are more likely to drop out, and that puts them more at risk of becoming involved in crime. The lack of education also can limit their future occupational choices.
Truancy has another financial cost. Most schools receive state and federal funding for each day a student attends. A school with high absenteeism will have less money to spend on educational and extracurricular programs.
On the good side
Schools across the nation continue to experiment with ways to get kids to and keep them in class. One California district has assigned handheld global positioning system (GPS) units to seventh- and eighth-grade students who had four or more unexcused absences. Five times each school day, the students must punch a code into the unit so that officials can track their whereabouts. Students are required to check in as they leave for school, when they arrive, during lunch, as they leave campus and at 8 p.m. An adult coach assigned to the students contacts them at least three times a week to monitor progress.
Each GPS unit, which is about the size of a mobile phone, costs between $300 and $400. The district also pays $8 per student each day for the service. The district loses $35 for each day a student is not in class, so officials hope that increased attendance will pay for the program.
Districts in Baltimore and San Antonio have reported success with a similar program. Attendance during the six-week program increased from 77 to 95 percent. There was a slight dip once the program ended, but coaches continued to work with students through the school year. Officials hope the program has taught students new habits that will last for the long term.
A Massachusetts high school is taking a different approach. Every school day, students identified as chronically truant or tardy get a 6:15 a.m. wakeup call with the recorded voice of the principal reminding them to be at school for first bell at 7:45 a.m. About 20 percent of the school’s 2,400 students are called each morning.
As another tactic, a memo on the school’s website reminds parents and students that "Chronic tardiness and absenteeism is not tolerated in the world of work and will not be tolerated here."
The administration’s goal with this program is to increase average daily attendance from the current 88 percent to at least 95 percent.
This method is less costly than using individual GPS units. Schools looking into this approach can easily program the morning calls into an existing emergency-notification system. The systems also can be used to notify parents when their children are absent—and possibly truant.
Other technology, including video surveillance cameras, visitor management and access control systems, also can help schools combat truancy.
Fiel Sr., public safety adviser for ADT Security Services, has more than 30 years of security and law-enforcement experience. For six years he served as the executive director of school security for the washington, D.C., Public School System, where he managed 163 school campuses. He can be reached at [email protected].