Sections within this essay:Background
The Rational for Truancy Laws
Extent of the Truancy Problem
Correlates of Truancy
Enforcing Truancy Laws
Getting Tough on Parents
Truancy and Home Schooling
Examples of Truancy Laws
Home School Legal Defense Association
Kansas City In School Truancy Prevention Project
National Home Education Research Institute
The National Center for Juvenile Justice
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention U. S. Department of Justice
United States Department of Education, OERI At Risk
Truancy, also called skipping school, is defined by all states as unexcused absences from school without the knowledge of a parent or guardian. It has been romanticized through literature and films by characters such as Tom Sawyer and Ferris Bueller as the harmless mischief juveniles do on sunny days. But the fact is juveniles who are school-aged are required by all states to attend school, whether that school be public, private, parochial, or some other educational forum. Truancy is, therefore, a status offense as it only applies to people of a certain age. The school age of a juvenile varies from state to state, with most states requiring attendance either from age six to age 17 or from age five to 18. There are a number of exceptions, such as Pennsylvania, which denotes school age as between eight and 17 and Illinois which denotes school age as between seven and 16.
The number of days required in order for a juvenile to be labeled "truant," varies by school, school district, and state. State legislation tends to provide some guidelines for school districts by setting a maximum number of absences allowed. School districts then tighten these guidelines. For example, in Pennsylvania, a truant is a school-aged juvenile who is absent from school more than three times after a notice of truancy has been sent to the juvenile's home. In Louisiana, a juvenile is deemed truant after the fifth unexcused absence from school, provided the absences occur in a single month. Many school districts define truancy as any unexcused absence, where unexcused means the student has left school property without parental or school permission.
Compulsory education began about sixty years ago and was strongly influenced by labor unions who were trying to keep children from working. The participation of children in the labor force kept adult wages low. Compulsory attendance in schools also lifted some authority of parents over their children to the state, as parents could no longer force their children to work. The state's authority in school attendance was underscored in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). In this case, the Supreme Court decided that the state had the right to uphold child labor laws and parents' authority could not preempt that of the state. Therefore, children had to attend school whether their parents supported education or not.
In recent research conducted by the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP, 2001), links between truancy and other, more serious forms of delinquency have been delineated. For example, the links between truancy and substance abuse, vandalism, auto theft, and gang behavior have all been established in criminology literature (see Loeber & Farrington, 2000 for details). The link between truancy and later, violent offending has been established in studies that examine male criminality (e.g., see Ingersoll & LeBoeuf, 1997). In turn, adults who were truants as juveniles tend to exhibit poorer social skills, have lower paying jobs, are more likely to rely on welfare support, and have an increased likelihood of incarceration (Hawkins & Catalano, 1995).
Residents have also put pressure on schools and lawmakers to tighten truancy laws as groups of young people loitering in public during school hours often appear threatening. In Tacoma, Washington, an increase in truancy was associated with an increase in juvenile perpetrated property crimes, such as burglary and vandalism. This increase in juvenile daytime crime led to a program targeting the enforcement of truancy laws in this state.
Those school districts with the highest truancy rates also have the lowest academic achievement rates. This link is usually established through truancy policies which deem automatic failure in courses where students are regularly absent. Therefore, students who do not attend school on a regular basis are unlikely to graduate from high school. Between 1992 and 2002 there have been approximately three million young adults each year aged between 16 and 24 who have either failed to complete high school or not enrolled in high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). This number represents about 11 percent of young adults in the United States. Within this group, there are a disproportionate number of minority students; for example, 30 percent of Hispanics are not completing high school (NCES, 2001). This number increases to 44 percent if the students counted were born outside of the United States (NCES, 2001). Thus, the recency of immigration seems to have important implications in the study of high school dropout rates. Researchers have linked this correlation to parental attitudes toward education. However, coming from countries where education is not highly valued, parents may not encourage their children to attend school, increasing the truancy rate and also increasing the drop out rate (Alexander et al., 1997).
Failure at high school not only affects the individual, but it also affects society. Affected students cannot attend college, are more likely to have low paying jobs and feel political apathy; they then can constitute a loss in tax revenue, may experience health problems, and place a strain on social services (Rosenfeld, Richman and Bowen, 1998). A recent U. S. Department of Labor study shows that 6.7 percent of adults with no high school diploma are likely to be unemployed, while only 3.5 percent of adults with a high school diploma are likely to be unemployed. With a bachelor's degree, only 1.8 percent of adults are likely to be unemployed (U. S. Dept. of Labor, 1999).
Although there are currently no national statistics available on the extent of the truancy, many states and cities do keep their own statistics which are often used to influence policy. A recent national study of school principals revealed that truancy was listed as one of the top five concerns by the majority of respondents (Heaviside, et al., 1998). In Chicago, a study conducted during the 1995–1996 school year indicated that the average 10th grader missed six weeks of instruction (Roderick et. al., 1997). Recent OJJDP research suggests that the number of truants are highest in inner city, public schools, where there are large numbers of students and where a large percentage of the student population participate in the free lunch program (OJJDP, 2001).
In terms of court processing, the number of truancy cases referred to juvenile courts is fairly small; for example, in 1998, about 28 percent of referred status offenses were truancies, which is an 85 percent increase compared with the previous ten years. However, this number is expected to increase dramatically given recent changes to truancy laws. Interestingly, the OJJDP (2001) reports that females are just as likely as males to be adjudicated for truancy.
The following factors have been found to have associations with truancy in that the likelihood of truancy is increased given the presence of these variables. First are family factors, such as lack of supervision, physical and psychological abuse, and failure to encourage educational achievement. Second are school factors which can range from inconsistent enforcement of rules to student boredom with curriculum. Economic factors are a third correlate, and these could be factors such as high family mobility or parents with multiple jobs. Last are student characteristics such as drug and alcohol abuse, ignorance of school rules, and lack of interest in education.
In all states, the first body responsible for enforcing truancy laws is usually the school. School officials, such as school truancy officers, teachers, and school principals, refer truancy cases to juvenile court jurisdiction. However, if truant individuals are found in a public area, they may be detained by police or taken to a detention facility.
Arizona was the first state in the United States to implement and enforce a get-tough approach to truancy laws. Research on truancy in Arizona began in the early 1990s. Pima County had the highest truancy rate in the state during this time period; in fact, truants from this county made up half of all truants in the state. Because of the extent of the problem, Pima County began a program called ACT Now (Abolish Chronic Truancy) which aimed to strictly enforce state and district truancy laws and offer a diversion program to address the root causes of truancy. The program also sought to provide serious sanctions for both juveniles and their parents if truancy persisted or if conditions specified by the diversion program were not met. School districts, school administrators, law enforcement personnel, and community agencies are involved in this program.
Once a student has one unexcused absence from school, a letter is sent home to the student's parents explaining the consequences of truancy. After a third unexcused absence, the juvenile is referred to the Center for Juvenile Alternatives (CJA) which makes a recommendation to the juvenile court. A letter is sent to the juvenile's parents explaining the diversion program or the alternative court imposed sanctions, and the parents decide which course of action they would prefer.
The diversion program consists of counseling, parenting classes, support groups, etc. Very often parents have no idea that their child is missing school, or they do not seem to care. Support groups and classes teach parents about the value of education and also help parents communicate more effectively with their teenagers. In their report, the CJA will identify which type of intervention is best for the family, and the juvenile and his or her parents will be referred accordingly. Both parents and the juvenile must sign an agreement promising to abide by the conditions of the diversion program. Successful completion of the program results in the truancy case being dismissed.
The ACT Now program has been formally evaluated by the American Prosecutors Research Institute (APRI), and each school district involved in the program has shown a steady decrease in the number of truancies each year. In the district with the highest percentage of truancies, ACT Now helped reduce truancies by 64 percent between 1996 and 1998. This program and versions of it are financially supported by the Department of Justice and have been implemented in many other states.
Many states also hold parents accountable for their children's truancy, and Arizona was the first state to implement such laws. The rationale behind this movement was to coerce parents into taking an active role in their children's education and for all parties to take truancy laws and school attendance seriously. In Virginia, parents can be fined and jailed for failure to adequately supervise school-aged children, which includes making sure they are attending school. In Pennsylvania, parents can also be fined and jailed if they have not taken reasonable steps to ensure their child is attending school. In Texas and many other states, similar laws have recently been passed.
The popularity of home schooling has increased dramatically between 1997 and 2002, and the Department of Education estimates that between 700,000 and two million children were home schooled during the 1999–2000 academic year. This fact has a large impact on the enforcement of truancy laws, as home schooled children may be out in public during school hours and could be apprehended by police. In many states, the right to home school children is protected by the state's constitution. For example, the constitution of the state of Oklahoma reads:
The Legislature shall provide for the compulsory attendance at some public or other school, unless other means of education are provided, of all the children in the State who are sound in mind and body, between the ages of eight and 16 years, for at least three months in each year. (Article XIII)
Many states, like Oklahoma, have not yet resolved how home schooling affects the enforcement of truancy laws. For example, in Illinois, there are currently no provisions for home schooled children under the law, and these children would be in violation of the state's truancy laws if those laws were enforced. The only exceptions to the truancy laws, that is, those circumstances in which school-aged individuals are not required to attend a public school in Illinois are: those attending private or parochial schools, those who are physically or mentally unable to attend school, those females who are pregnant or have young children, those who are lawfully employed, and those individuals who are absent for religious holidays.
The regulation of home schooling thus varies greatly by state. Some states have very little regulation and do not require parents to contact the state to inform officials that children will be home schooled. Some of these states are Arkansas, Indiana, Illinois, Oklahoma, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey. Other states, such as California, Arizona, New Mexico, Alabama, and Kentucky, have low regulation and require that parents who are home schooling their children report this fact to the state. Other states, such as Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Colorado, Oregon, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, and Louisiana, have moderate regulation in which parents must report test scores and student evaluations to the state. Some states, such as New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maine, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Washington, and Utah, require parents to submit test scores and evaluations of students and also professional evaluations of teachers and curriculum for approval. The level of regulation in each state affects how truancy laws can be enforced. If the state has no record of students being home schooled, it is difficult to enforce truancy laws across the board.
Although states vary in their responses to truancy, their laws in defining truancy are fairly similar. Below are some examples for various states.
CALIFORNIA: Any school-aged child who is absent from school without valid excuse three full days in one school year or tardy or absent for more than any 30-minute period during one school day on three occasions during the school year or any combination thereof is considered truant and should be reported to the supervisor of the school district.
CONNECTICUT: A truant is a child between the ages of five and 18 who is enrolled in any public or private school and has four unexcused absences in a month or 10 in any school year. A habitual truant is a child of the same age who has 20 unexcused absences from school during a school year.
ILLINOIS: A truant is defined as any child subject to compulsory schooling and who is absent from school unexcused. Absences that are excused are determined by the school board. A chronic or habitual truant is a school-age child who is absent without valid cause for 10 percent out of 180 consecutive days. The truant officer in Illinois is responsible for informing parents of truancy and referring the case to juvenile court.
LOUISIANA: Any student between the ages of seven and seventeen is required to attend school. A student is considered truant when the child has been absent from school for five school days in schools operating on a semester system and for ten days in schools not operating on a semester basis. A student may be referred to juvenile court for habitual absence when all reasonable efforts by school administrators have failed and there have been five unexcused absences in one month. The school principal or truancy officer shall file a report indicating dates of absences, contacts with parents, and other information.
VIRGINIA: Any student between the ages of five and 18 is subject to compulsory school attendance. After a pupil has been absent for five days during the school year without a valid excuse, a notice is sent to parents outlining the consequences of truancy. A conference with school officials and parents is arranged within fifteen school days of the sixth absence. Once a truant has accumulated more than seven absences during the school year, the case will be referred to juvenile and domestic relations court.
Current population survey, March 2000. U.S. Census Bureau, Government Printing Office, 2001.
Dropout Rates in the United States: 1999. National Center for Education Statistics, 2001. Available on-line at http://nces.gov/pubs2001.htm, [Accessed October 28, 2001].
From First Grade Forward: Early Foundations of High School Dropout. Alexander, Karl L., Entwisle, Doris R and Horsey, Carrie S. (1997). Sociology of Education, 70, (2), 87-107.
Habits Hard to Break: A New Look at Truancy in Chicago's Public High Schools. M. Roderick, J. Chiong, M. Arney, K. DaCosta, M. Stone, L. Villarreal- Sosa and E. Waxman. Research in Brief: University of Chicago, School of Social Service Administration, 1997.
Manual to Combat Truancy. U. S. Department of Education and the Department of Justice, 1996. Available on-line at http://www.ed.gov/pubs/Truancy/index.html [Accessed October 28, 2001].
Reaching Out to Youth Out of the Education Mainstream. S. Ingersoll and D. LeBoeuf. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 1997.
Risk Focused Prevention: Using the Social Development Strategy. J. D. Hawkins, and R. Catalano. Developmental Research and Programs Inc., 1995.
Supportive Communication and School Outcomes for Academically At-Risk and Other Low Income Middle School Students. Lawrence, B. Rosenfeld, Jack, M. Richman, and Gary, L. Bowen (1998). Communication Education, 47, (4), 309-325.
Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School. Myriam L. Baker, Jane N. Sigmon and M. Elaine Nugent. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, 2001.
Violence and Discipline Problems in U. S. Public Schools: 1996–1997. S. Heaviside, C. Rowand, C. Williams and E. Farris. U. S. Department of Education, 1998.
Young Children who Commit Crime: Epidemiology, Developmental Origins, Risk Factors, Early Interventions, and Policy Implications. Richard Loeber and David Farrington (2000). Development and Psychopathology, 12 (4), 737-762.
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Truancy is unapproved absence from school, usually without a parent's knowledge.
Truancy is a serious problem in many communities in the United States. All states have laws governing compulsory education. Noncompliance results in penalties for the parent(s) or guardian of the truant student. The majority of the states require that students attend school until at least age 16. Those students who do not attend school regularly are often taking the first step toward a lifetime of problems. Most experts believe that truancy is a powerful and accurate predictor of involvement in crime and violence. The United States Department of Justice reports that 80 percent of those in prison were at one time truants. The percent of juvenile offenders who started as truants is even higher, approaching 95 percent. Truancy is different from school phobia, in which a child fails to attend school because of anxiety .
As of 2004, no national database existed to define the number children who are truant, partly because there is no uniform definition of truancy. Some districts consider children truant only if they miss a half or full day of school, while others consider missing a single scheduled class period as truancy. The Los Angeles School District has estimated that 10 percent of its students are absent each day and that only 5 percent return with written notes from home excusing the absence. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, schools reported 3,500 students, or 12 percent of all students, were absent on an average school day; 70 percent of those were unexcused. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported 4,000 unexcused absences on an average school day. Miami, Florida, reported that over 70 percent of 13- to 16-year-olds prosecuted for crimes were truant. The No Child Left Behind Act of the early 2000s requires school districts to report truancy, so national numbers were expected to become available. Boys and girls are equally likely to be truant. The average age of truant students is 15 years, but some children begin skipping school as young as 10.
Why children are truant
According the United States Department of Education's 1996 Manual to Combat Truancy, skipping school is a cry for help and a signal that the child is in trouble. Psychiatrists consider truancy one of many symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder or the more serious diagnosis of conduct disorder , especially when truancy begins before age 13.
There are many reasons why children become truant. These include:
- lack of interest in education and alienation from school
- falling behind academically in school
- fear of violence on the way to school or at school
- alienation from authority
- lax parental supervision
- lack of parental support for education
- drug and alcohol abuse
- working long hours while attending school, resulting in chronic exhaustion
- lack of significant consequences for failure to attend school
- problems at home that require supervising younger children or helping dysfunctional adults
Truancy as a predictor of behavior
Truancy is a strong and reliable predictor of delinquent behavior, especially among males. Children who are habitual truants are more likely to engage in undesirable and antisocial behaviors such as gang membership, marijuana use, alcohol use, inhalant and hard drug use, high-risk sexual behavior, cigarette smoking , suicidal behaviors, theft, and vandalism. Truant girls are more likely to become pregnant and drop out of school. Most habitual truants eventually enter the juvenile court system. As adults, habitual truants have more employment and marital problems and are jailed far more often than nontruants.
Truancy is a gateway to serious violent and nonviolent crime. Law enforcement agencies have linked high rates of truancy to high rates of daytime burglary and vandalism. In addition, they have found habitual truants are more likely to belong to gangs and participate in violent crimes and assaults.
Communities in which anti-truancy programs have been successful use a combination of incentives and sanctions to keep students in school. In the Manual to Combat Truancy, five key points are defined for minimizing truancy. The first step is to involve parents in all aspects of truancy prevention. To stop truants, the school must be able to provide parents with notification of their child's absence on the day the absence occurs. Schools are advised to create an efficient attendance-tracking system and to communicate students' absences to parents immediately.
Second, schools must have firm policies on the consequences for truancy, and all students should be aware of the sanctions that will be imposed if they are absent without an excuse. Some states have found that linking truancy to the ability to obtain a driver's license effectively reduces unexcused absences. Others have invoked a daytime curfew, allowing police to question any young person not in school during school hours.
Third, parents must take responsibility for keeping their children in school. Most state laws impose fines or jail terms on parents of truants. School districts vary in how aggressive they are about holding parents accountable; however, more are becoming tougher. For example, in 2003, the Upper Darby School District in suburban Philadelphia had 14,000 students. This school system sends 10 to 12 parents to jail each year for their children's failures to attend school.
Alternately, some states are investigating ways to use incentives such as linking eligibility for public assistance to truancy as an effective way to capture parents' interest in keeping their children in school. Another positive incentive provides increased eligibility for services to families whose children attend school regularly. Many communities also offer effective parenting courses, family counseling, and mediation for returning the student to school.
Fourth, root causes of truancy must be addressed. The root causes of truancy are complex and varied and can include drug use, membership in a peer group of truants or gangs, lack of direction in education, poor academic performance, and violence at or near school. By analyzing the reasons students are truant, the school administration may be able to correct or improve the problem and reduce truancy. For example, if students stay away from school because of inadequate academic skills, special tutoring programs may be initiated. If students have concerns about violence near the school, the administration may request increased security from the police for the surrounding neighborhood. Local businesses can be enlisted to support school-to-work programs to help students make the transition to employment.
Finally, a close link between the school, law enforcement, juvenile court, family court officials, and social service agencies may lead to solutions for truancy. Some communities have authorized the police to patrol neighborhoods where truant youth are likely to spend the school hours. Daytime curfews are also effective in some cities, where school age children can be questioned if they are on the streets during school hours.
Truancy is not normally an isolated problem in a child's life. The following comparisons from a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry highlight the problem. The first percentage given is for truant children. The percentage of each activity in nontruant children is given in parentheses for comparison.
- all psychiatric disorders: 25.4 percent (6.8 percent)
- oppositional defiant disorder: 9.7 percent (2.3 percent)
- conduct disorder: 14.8 percent (1.6 percent)
- depression: 7.5 percent (1.6 percent)
- conflictual relationships with peers: 16.2 percent (8.7 percent)
- living in poverty: 31.3 percent (19.1 percent)
- single-parent household: 45.9 percent (21.8 percent)
- lax parental supervision: 31.5 percent (6.7 percent)
- mother currently diagnosed as depressed: 11.9 percent (5.5 percent)
- parents teenagers at time of birth: 15.3 percent (8.4 percent)
Almost half of all truants live in single-parent households, usually headed by women. Parents are concerned that they have lost control of their children and fear legal sanctions if their child skips school. They also are concerned about their child dropping out of school and becoming involved in crime and the criminal justice system. Parents may also fail to understand the attendance laws or have cultural biases against the education system.
When to get help
Truancy is a symptom that things are out of control in a child's life. Parents need to seek help from the school, social service agencies, and mental health professionals at the first sign that their child is skipping school.
See also Conduct disorder.
Reid, Paula, and Elizabeth A. Whitmore. "Conduct Disorder." In Psychiatric Secrets, 2nd ed. Edited by Alan Jacobson. St. Louis: Mosby, 2001, pp. 310–13.
Baker, Myriam L., Jane Nady Sigmon, and M. Elaine Nugent. "Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School." Juvenile Justice Bulletin U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 2001.
Egger, Helen Link, E. Jane Costello, and Adrian Angold. "School Refusal and Psychiatric Disorders: A Community Study." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (July 2003): 797–808.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016–3007. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
National Association of School Psychologists. 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. Web site: <www.nasponline.org>.
Tish Davidson, A.M.
Truancy is defined as unexcused absences from school without parents' knowledge. Causes of truancy may include social (e.g., peer pressure), family (e.g., low parental involvement, discord, abusive or neglectful environment), and individual factors (e.g., low IQ, drug or alcohol use, psychological disorder). As such, frequent truancy may signal other difficulties in a child's life. Chronic truancy has been associated with delinquency (e.g., daytime burglary, vandalism, running away, lying), poor academic performance, and dropout rates. It may be predictive of criminal behavior in adulthood among children who also engage in other forms of delinquent behavior and have a history of conduct problems from an early age. Truancy should be distinguished from school refusal, which is defined as staying home from school with parents' knowledge due to emotional distress about attending. Whereas truancy is commonly associated with antisocial behavior, school refusal has been linked to anxiety disorders.
"Manual to Combat Truancy." Prepared by the U.S. Department of Education (July 1996). Available from http://www.ed.gov/pubs/Truancy/; INTERNET.