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Truancy: Balance Between Prevention, Discipline Has Long Been a Sticky Issue

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Reading the news out of Texas lately—including a Department of Justice review of Dallas County truancy courts and public debate over changing legal penalties for skipping school—it would be easy to frame truancy intervention as an emerging issue. But a quick peek into the Education Week archives show that's not the case.

Even decades ago, school districts and state lawmakers struggled to find the right way to keep kids in school. How harsh should the penalties be for repeatedly missing class? Is this a criminal issue or a matter to be handled in the principal's office? How effective are school-level supports at preventing truancy and dropouts? And do schools have the resources they need to effectively help students before chronic absenteeism becomes a problem?

The kinds of carrot-vs-stick questions lawmakers are asking at the Texas statehouse this week have been around a long time.

"In recent weeks, several urban school districts—from New York City to Milwaukee to Fresno, Calif.—have teamed up with police to get students off the streets, out of the video arcades, and back to class," Education Week wrote in 1993. "Truancy is viewed as a precursor to dropping out of school entirely."

Educators viewed student behavior and discipline in general much differently in the early 1990s, before concerns about zero-tolerance policies and overly punitive policies led many to scale back their use of suspensions, to reconsider referrals to police departments, and to carefully scrutinize data to look for racial disparities.

But, even in 1993, police intervention in attendance issues sparked civil rights concerns.

"In Philadelphia and New York, which may begin its first sweeps in many years as early as this week, such plans have met with concerns about following up on truant students' attendance, and possible racial discrimination by police or other civil-liberties violations," the 1993 story said.

"Dennis Walcott, a school board member and the president of the New York Urban League, said his concerns were 'multifaceted,' including how police would be able to distinguish truant students from those who leave school early or are on their way to jobs. He said it is difficult to tell by looking at their identification cards when students are expected to be in school," the story later added. (Walcott later became the chancellor of the New York City schools under former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg.)

"Sweeps raise the specter of a 'selective racial pattern' if police use stereotypes to pass by the 'white kid in a blazer and button-down shirt' and pick up 'the black or Hispanic youth dressed in a black Raiders jacket and baggy jeans,' said Norman Siegel, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union."

Concerns about such truancy sweeps echo those raised in a report that questioned Texas' handling of criminal truancy cases last month. Those concerns include questions over whether the penalties are too steep, whether it is appropriate to penalize parents for their children's truancy, and whether criminal penalties for truancy have any preventative effects.

Lonestar State lawmakers are considering a bill that would scale back penalties for skipping school. Their efforts follow the publication of that report, by the Texas Appleseed Project, which found that Texas prosecutes twice as many truancy cases as all other states combined, often in adult courts.

But, as the Dallas Morning News reports, some school leaders and lawmakers argue that such measures are sometimes necessary to put a stop to problematic attendance patterns.

The school officials said at the Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing they have many interventions in place to help students but sometimes stronger efforts are required.

School leaders who oppose the bill "were backed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who chided those supporting decriminalization of truancy," the Morning News reported. "He said they sound as though they are making excuses for children who need to be held accountable for their own actions."

"I don't like for our courts to be called 'the hammer,' but don't sometimes we need a hammer?" Creighton said in a committee meeting, according to the paper.

What do you think? How should schools handle poor attendance? What's the role of police? The courts? State policy?

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