Juvenile delinquency, when discussed within the context of education, refers to the broader topic of juvenile lawlessness, which encompasses everything from drug and alcohol abuse to school violence. Truancy can be seen as a specific type of juvenile delinquency that, according to Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the U.S. Department of Justice, refers to the students' unexcused absences from school. Beyond its connection to poor academic performance, many researchers have concluded that truancy is an important predictor of juvenile delinquency. In recent decades, as the U.S. public education system has developed a reputation for underperforming students and rising levels of crime and violence, politicians, law enforcement officials, teachers, parents and school administrators have made renewed efforts to curb truancy in the belief that regular school attendance is vital to improving student achievement in an increasingly global economy.
ACADEMIC TOPIC OVERVIEWS
School Safety > Juvenile Delinquency/Truancy
Truancy is defined as an unexcused absence from school. This is not necessarily the same as excessive absence, which historically has been caused by a variety of factors, the most predominant being severe illness (Jennings, 1927; Brazelton, 1939). This factor has been reduced through widespread vaccination programs and much improved medical care. Truancy can be as mild as "ditching" school on a Friday in the spring, but it can also turn into the habit of avoiding school attendance whenever possible. Perhaps not surprisingly, the problem of truancy in the United States has existed since the passage of compulsory education laws beginning in the nineteenth century, which required public school students to attend classes for a given number of hours each week, for a number of days each year, and until a certain age (typically sixteen or eighteen). Legally, truancy is what is termed a status offense, meaning that it only applies to children below a state-mandated age.
The idea of hapless truant officers, in movies or television, chasing after petulant--and surprisingly resourceful--children in the hopes of dragging them kicking and screaming back to the school, has created an image of truancy in the United States that is in need of updating. Law enforcement officers, school officials, and parents agree that today's truancy has much wider implications for schools and the wider society than the bruised produce resulting from an overturned apple cart.
Compulsory Education Laws
In 1867, two years after the Civil War, the U.S. Congress created a special department of education to oversee the reform of public education in the United States. The South, which had Union troops on its soil until 1878, was forced by the federal government to create public school systems to help educate freed slaves as well as the many poor white children who had little more than a passing acquaintance with formal education (Schlesinger, 1933, p. 160). In rural areas, where children still worked in the family fields, the school year was considerably shorter than that of students pouring in to America's growing big cities.
Beginning in the 1870s, more and more states, both Northern and Southern, began to pass compulsory school attendance laws, though states with large numbers of new immigrants, partially dependent on the wages from their children's labor, moved more cautiously in that direction:
"During the nineteenth century, in particular, a large percentage of Americans were ambivalent about compulsory schooling laws. Some parents openly resisted enforcement of them, saying that it was no business of the state to meddle in family decisions . Many citizens regarded footloose truants as harmless Huck Finns. When attendance offers enforced child labor laws, parents often resented the loss of their children's income, employers lost cheap labor, and many of the children themselves had no desire to return to school. One factory inspector in Chicago found that 412 of the 500 children she interviewed would rather have worked in the factory than gone to school" (Tyack & Berkowitz, 1977, pp. 32-33).
In 1918 Mississippi was the last of the 48 states to pass a compulsory education law. Today, all 50 states have such laws on the books.
It seems that the laws had a positive educational effect: from 1878 to 1898, the number of children attending public schools rose from nine million to fifteen million. Meanwhile, during this same twenty-year period, in order to accommodate the influx of new pupils, the number of kindergartens rose from under 200 to 3,000, and the number of high schools grew from less than 800 to 5,500 (Schlesinger, 1933, p. 162).
The Truant Officer
In many locales a type of police officer known as a truant officer was charged with enforcing the compulsory education laws. While many truant officers upheld the highest ethical standards of their profession, scholars have shown that, in some cases, they were abusing their mandate. For instance, after Michigan passed a compulsory education law in 1883, 37 percent of anti-truancy arrests in the 1890s were made "between 8:00 PM and 2:00 AM, well outside of school hours" (Wolcott, 2001, p. 356). It also seems to have been the practice of the police to use the court system to prosecute only habitual truants. Others were sent home to their disapproving parents or enrolled in "truant schools" to, it was hoped, instill some discipline in wayward youth (Wolcott, 2001, p. 356).
In the twentieth century and on into the twenty-first century, truancy has been addressed with a combination of methods, depending on the nature and frequency of the offense. Many public school districts offer counseling services to attempt to get to the root causes of a student's truancy, social workers assist with family therapy sessions as needed, and the juvenile justice system provides a last resort of court-ordered drug and alcohol treatment programs or even imprisonment in a juvenile facility for truants who commit crimes.
Truancy by the Numbers
Given what is at stake in truant behavior, the numbers for truancy in the United States at the beginning of the twenty-first century have been maddeningly imprecise. As one scholar notes,
"[W]hile anecdotal evidence suggests that truancy has reached epidemic proportions, we do not have accurate estimates of the prevalence of truancy in the United States due to inconsistent tracking and reporting practices of schools. As a result, our best current estimates of the national state of truancy are from self-reported data" (Henry, 2007).
Even so, the information that is available is sufficient to paint a very different picture of the truant student than that of the "harmless Huck Finn" or enterprising street urchin envisioned by many Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. There is evidence from Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, and many other metropolitan schools, for example, of thousands of instances of truancy each day. In Minneapolis, researchers noted that only 47% of students were in school at least 95% of the time during the 1999-2000 school year, though the number rose to nearly 57% in 2001-2002 (Hinx, Kapp & Snapp, 2003, p. 149). Among a random sampling of students who participated in the national Monitoring the Future survey in 2003, 10.5% of 8th-graders reported that they had skipped school at least once in the previous four weeks, while 16.4% of 10th-grade students said they had done the same (Henry, 2007).
Local work has been done, for example, by three different grand juries in Miami-Dade Country in Florida, which found that 75-85 percent of its serious criminal offenders in the early 1990s had a history of being truant or absent from school for long stretches of time beginning in the third grade (cited in NCSE, n.d.). It is also the case that truant students account for a large percent of juvenile crime: in San Diego alone, 37 percent of juvenile crime in 2001 occurred between 8:30 A.M. and 1:29 P.M. (cited by San Diego Public Safety & Neighborhood Services Committee, 2002, p. 8). Finally, and perhaps contrary to some assumptions, only 54 percent of truancy cases that went to court involved boys (cited in NCSE, n.d.).
The picture of truancy facing school officials, civic leaders, and parents is much more complicated and challenging than it has been in the past. It is incumbent upon state and federal governments to develop a common methodology for assessing truancy in America so that researchers can develop a more precise understanding of truancy and how it can be prevented--something that will be a benefit both to students and to society as a whole.
State Compulsory Attendance Laws
Each state has a law on the books that stipulates the age at which a student must begin attending school and the age until which he or she must remain in school (the "legal dropout age"). Every state requires that students remain in school until at least age 16, while a number require students to remain in school until age 18. For more detailed and up-to-date information on specific state requirements, see "Compulsory Attendance Laws Listed by State," a publication of the National Center for School Engagement.
What Makes a Student Become Truant?
While there are many theories regarding the causes of truancy, Henry (2007) points out that one thing is consistent: there is very little information on the subject.
"In addition to a paucity of research pertaining to the prevalence of truancy in the United States, we also know surprisingly little about the correlates of truancy. That is, while several studies have assessed the consequences of truancy, no studies that could be identified have assessed the predictors, causes, or correlates of truancy using a nationally representative sample of youth. It is...
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