Why DA Seth Williams is wrong about criminalizing truancy

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (Nathaniel Hamilton for Newsworks

    Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams (Nathaniel Hamilton for Newsworks

    District Attorney Seth Williams is right to be concerned about high rates of truancy in the School District of Philadelphia. But Williams’ proposed “hammer” strategy of threatening criminal charges is simply the wrong approach. 

    District Attorney Seth Williams is right to be concerned about high rates of truancy in the School District of Philadelphia. He is right to recognize non-attendance as an urgent matter that demands a cross-systems, multi-tiered approach to motivate both students and families. He is right that the stakes for our children couldn’t be higher: Truancy is inextricably linked to dropping out of school and juvenile delinquency, and strongly correlates with negative life outcomes including drug use, unemployment, victimization and adult incarceration.

    But Williams’ proposed “hammer” strategy of threatening criminal charges is simply the wrong approach. It ignores the considerable research and evidence that criminalizing truancy is ineffective and counterproductive. Truancy is not a one-size-fits-all problem. Successfully addressing this issue requires an understanding of the individual circumstances of each student and family.

    First, numerous studies, the experience of other states, and lessons learned from counties across Pennsylvania all support the conclusion that punitive measures, including criminalizing and imprisoning parents and students, does not reduce truancy. Such sanctions fail to re-engage students and families in school. Instead, they push families further away and increase distrust of schools — while failing to address the underlying root causes of the child’s truancy. It is because of such research and experience that there are only three states nationwide that still criminalize truancy. For example, a report on truancy in Texas by the National Center for School Engagement found that criminalizing conduct, imposing hefty fines, or withholding learning only alienated families and students. A study in Los Angeles disclosed that the use of punitive measures was similarly ineffective because they failed to address the root causes of attendance problems.

    There is no evidence that these policies reduce truancy or curb high dropout rates. 

    In fact, many judges report that the threat of jail time or exorbitant fines causes families to go underground to avoid sanctions, thereby increasing truancy and absenteeism. In addition, the immediate collateral consequences of placing mothers in jail negatively impacts families rather than supporting attendance.

    We also know what does work to reduce truancy: clear rules that inform families and are consistently enforced and based on accurate data. Prompt school-based interventions should include individualized attendance improvement plans that address the root causes of truancy and engage families while connecting students to school-based or community services. Truancy must be recognized as a “school engagement” issue. To solve it, schools must incentivize students to re-engage in school rather than push them further away.

    Truancy is often a reflection of the need for adequate resources and staff in schools, including teachers, school nurses, guidance counsellors, evidence-based truancy prevention programs, expanded vocational and curriculum options for older youth, and a supportive positive school climate. We need to make our schools a place where students want to learn and are supported to do so.    

    To do this we need changes. For starters, we need to revise our state’s convoluted truancy laws in order to clarify the rules. Schools also need support to prevent and address truancy. We need to add positive incentives and eliminate laws and policies that push kids away from school — including policies that expel students, and laws that limit learning and opportunities by transferring students who are habitually truant to alternative education for disruptive youth programs. There is no evidence that criminalizing parents or students or removing youth from school — whereby they fall even further behind — ever works to reduce truancy or re-engage students in school. In fact, the opposite happens: these students are far more likely to disengage and ultimately drop out.

    The district attorney is right: the truancy crisis must be addressed — but with effective, evidence-based approaches that are known to work and reinforce attachment to school rather than punitive measures that criminalize truancy. Effective school-based interventions decrease our reliance on the court system, child welfare system, and the prison system. This cost-effective investment needs to be the priority. The lifelong stakes for our children couldn’t be higher.

    Maura McInerney is a Senior Attorney at the Education Law Center-PA, a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, and children experiencing homelessness. 

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