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Does Truancy Warrant Punishment?

Despite the importance of a diploma, there are students who do not go to school. More than 40 states regard their truancy as a "status offense," which carries with it various penalties. Three advocacy groups representing seven students in Texas recently filed a complaint with the Justice Department charging that their clients' constitutional rights were violated by the state ("Texas Students Sue Over Truancy Punishment," The Wall Street Journal, Jun. 13).

Before jumping to conclusions about the validity of the lawsuit, I'd like to know the reasons for the truancy, not only in the case of the seven students but for others as well. I say that because sometimes students run afoul of truancy laws due to circumstances beyond their control. For example, students from poor homes may miss school because they have to take care of their younger siblings or assist ailing parents. They deserve special consideration and assistance.

For other truants, I see no justification for such treatment, nor do I favor forcing them to attend school and punishing them if they don't. That's because the U.S. attempts to educate young people for more years than any other country. If students still don't appreciate the value of the education provided them even after counseling, why do we force them to attend? K-12 education is a right, but every right carries with it responsibilities.

So for these truant students, I say allow them to try working without a high school diploma. I think they would soon see the error of their ways. Hitting them with stiff fees, long hours of community service and sometimes incarceration are totally counterproductive. Let's always keep the school door open for them, but at the same time don't shield them from reality. All actions have consequences. That alone may be the greatest lesson they will ever learn.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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