Thursday, March 13, 2008

Getting tough on truancy

I was reading the Orange County Register on Tuesday and came across an interesting news story. The article covered an intervention for truant children in some of Orange County’s most disadvantaged school districts. To deal with the high number of children not attending school, a force was put together consisting of school personnel and police officers. Members would call homes when a child was absent if the child had over 18 days of missed school. These phone calls were to warn the parents that not sending their children to school was against the law and that their children were missing out on their education.

So far so good, right? Well, I was disturbed by the second format the task force used to make sure students came to school. If a child was absent from school, members of the force would go to children’s homes, speak to the parents (if possible) and drive the students to school in a police car! I understand that we want children to take school seriously and that we also want to strictly enforce compulsory education, but this may be taking it a step too far. First, this scare tactic can have a negative impact on the child, who may associate a ride in the back of the police car with possible future transgressions. Second, these children, who are already at risk due to their negative environmental settings (i.e. dangerous neighborhoods, subpar schooling, etc.), may come to believe that they deserve this treatment, and that their future may consist of more “police car rides.”

Lastly, and related to this course, this type of intervention may not be getting to the root of the truancy problem. We must ask, why are their higher truancy rates in disadvantaged schools over schools in more affluent areas? Most likely, truancy occurs because of inequalities between school and neighborhood settings. For example, students in disadvantaged schools may have “rational” reasons why they should not take school seriously. Students are not ignorant of the subpar quality of the schools they attend as compared to their more affluent counterparts. Perhaps lowered attendance rates reflect this more structural, rather than individual problem. In other words, we should arrive at solutions that will get to the heart of the truancy problem, rather than slap another band aid on the situation, especially one that involves scare tactics such as these.


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