Do US laws that punish parents for truancy keep their kids in school?
After a woman died serving in jail due to her children's truancy fines, the Guardian investigates US truancy data and how states try to enforce laws for keeping kids in class
Monday 23 June 2014 11.59 EDT
Earlier this month, a Berks County, Pennsylvania, mother died in jail while serving a 48-hour sentence, handed down because she couldn't pay her children's truancy fines. She owed about $2,000 in fines and other court costs, which had piled up over more than a decade, according to the AP.
But while the woman's story took a particularly tragic turn, many more parents across the US face fines or jail time over their children’s unexcused school absences. Just how many is hard to quantify nationally or even at state-levels, but the Berks County school district alone has imprisoned over 1,600 people – mostly women – for failing to pay truancy fines between 2000-2013, according to a local paper, The Reading Eagle.
Many states have similar punishments codified in law, but according to Joanna Heilbrunn, director of the National Center for School Engagement, and several other educational policy organizations who responded to the Guardian's requests, there is no concrete data to back up the idea that fining and jailing parents helps fight truancy.
The Guardian spoke with Heilbrunn about the demographics of truancy in America, the effectiveness of fines and jail times for parents who can't keep their kids in school, and why alternative punishments – like suspending a teen's drivers license, for starters – may be a better bet.
To get a better picture of the issue, the Guardian also sifted through all 50 states' education laws, which vary substantially in their definition of truancy and the severity of punishments they allow.
Depending on the state, students can be considered truant after one day or up to “10 half-days” of unexcused absence. Schools handle minor infractions through warning letters, parent-teacher conferences, and other means. But in 40 states and the District of Columbia, parents of repeat offenders can face fines – anywhere from $20 to $1,500, plus court fees – or short-term imprisonment. Browse the embedded chart to find where your state stands and compare it against others. (Note that local districts may set their own definitions or penalties within the states’ limits.)
The Guardian's conversation with Heilbrunn is also punctuated by supporting data from the National Center for Juvenile Justice's 2010 Juvenile Court Statistics report, one of the only sources of national data on truancy. This dataset examines those truancy cases referred to and acted upon by state juvenile courts around the country.
The conversation has been edited for clarity.
The woman who died in jail last week brought truancy fines to national attention. Some media outlets referred to her jailing as "debtors prison". It got us wondering, how did this idea of fining families (children and/or parents) for absenteeism catch on in the first place? Is there evidence to back it up?
Joanna Heilbrunn: Evidence to support it? That would require someone doing a study looking at different punishments levied in court and comparing outcomes. You'd need a fairly large sample, and a control group. These things tend not to get done, frankly.
What people "know" about responses to truancy and to lots of other things [are] anecdotal in many cases. Judges have impressions about what works and what doesn’t work, [and] judges differ substantially in the extent to which they actually assess fines. Lots of things are on the books but don’t always get enforced. (I don’t think anyone collects data on how often judges actually impose fines.)
But there is plenty of evidence, based on real studies, to show that in general supportive measures work much better than punitive measures when you’re dealing with truancy, because there’s always some reason behind [an absence].
Can you give some examples of reasons you've seen for truancy, both for elementary schoolers and older kids, who are less directly under a parent's control?
When you’re talking about little kids – elementary schools kids – it’s the parents job to get the kids to school. In almost all cases, elementary school kids love to go to school: it’s where their friends are, the teachers are warm and fuzzy, they do fun things, they have recess. Something's going on if a parent isn't getting the child to school, and, likely, it’s not that the parent doesn’t care.
The case is far more likely that there is some real problem in the family that is preventing the parent from getting the child to school. It can be a mental health problem on the part of the parent, or an economic problem. It can be all kinds of things, there are plenty of real barriers. But levying a fine does nothing to remove any of the barriers you can possibly think of that might be preventing a family from getting a kid to school.
[Fines aren’t] designed to do that. They’re not designed to make it easier for a parent to get a kids to school. They're just designed to make parents fret more. That doesn’t really help.
When you’re talking about older kids, sometimes those kids are really not under the parents control any more. I’ve had plenty of parents tell me, “I don’t know what to do. I drop my child off at school and watch him walk through the front door and then the school does nothing to keep him there, and he walks right out the back door, and then the school calls me and yells at me.”
Well, from the school’s point of view, it’s really hard to force a teenager to remain at school. But [you need to ask] what’s making that kid leave? There’s something. Because almost every single kid wants to be successful at school. It feels good to get a good grade, to have a teacher say that you did a good job. And if you grow up turning in your homework and having teachers say “Good job!” and doing well, you want to continue those feelings. Well, there’s something going on if a kid isn’t doing that. Chances are they're experiencing some barrier.
What I’ve learned from talking to a lot of [teens] who have had attendance problems is: truancy is somewhat addictive. The first time [skipping school] is a lark. They go off with their friends and it’s fun. And the second time it’s fun, and maybe even the third time. But then it becomes really awkward coming back to the classroom. They’re not well received, they’re behind in schoolwork, and then they’re stuck in this cycle. Kids don’t often have a lot of forward thinking, they don’t think about the consequences of skipping once versus the consequences of skipping twice.
Some of them have real challenges [at home, too]. Some of the kids who are truant, man, you just have to commend them for getting out of bed in the morning. Their lives are sometimes incredibly hard, and teachers and others at school don’t often know what is going on in their life. Maybe they have to babysit for a younger sibling, or take care of grandma, or if mom and dad were fighting all night and you couldn’t sleep. A lot could be going on.
Punitive responses don’t address any of these problems.
What are the demographic stats on truancy? Do we see economic discrepancies? What about gender: do we see more boys skipping school than girls?
Typically, when you're talking about juveniles getting in trouble, you think about boys more than girls. Boys are overrepresented in [almost] every problem category – but not truancy. Boys and girls are equally likely to be truant.
Truant kids also tend to be lower rather than upper income. The more money a family has, the more resources they have to avoid or address some of these [behavioral and family] problems in the first place.
For example, if a family that has good health insurance finds that their child has problems with depression, and the lethargy and the not caring that go along with it, they get the kids into counselling because they have the resources to do that. But a low-income family may not have those resources.
In general, wealthier families tend to have more educated parents [and they] tend to be more proactive about getting their kids to school. The kids might face some of the same issues and challenges[as their lower-income counterparts], but [higher-income parents] can respond to the challenges more effectively.
By the way, another group that has difficulty sometimes are immigrants. A lot of people come from countries where school attendance is not mandatory, and they don’t always understand that it’s the law here that kids have to go to school.
What's the alternative to fining parents? Are there more effective ways to tackle truancy?
Absolutely. There’s some evidence to show that other things matter more to kids than fines. If you take a kid’s cellphone away, that’s a much bigger deal than a fine. If you take a kid’s driver’s license away, that matters more. So I would suggest that taking a cellphone away [is the better way to go]. You could even court order the parent to lock up that cell phone.
[Editor's note: Some states have already implemented similar recommendations. 17 states "have laws requiring young people to stay in school or maintain a certain grade point average to earn or keep their drivers’ licenses," according to a report from NCSE, Heilbrunn's organization.]
A lot of courts are involved in pre-court interventions, too. They’re called "pre-court diversion programs", and many of them are very effective. These typically involve connecting the [truant student's] family with some sort of social worker, case manager or attendance advocate.
Different programs give these people different names, but it’s a supportive person with a social work background whose job it is to make a personal connection with the family, gain the family’s trust, and find out what the issue is so that they can get the family some referrals. (And by referral I don’t mean, here’s a number you can call, I mean “I’ll go with you to the mental health center, and let’s meet the therapist together.”)
These advocates can help with all sorts of little things: get the kid an alarm clock, find the kid an old bicycle so the kid can ride it to school; get the kid a job; get the family's bills paid. You know, if the family has the electricity turned off that can cause all sorts of problems, including lapse in attendance. So get the electricity turned back on!
Schools definitely have a role in truancy too. The research shows that kids who feel that at least one person in the school cares about them in some personal way are more likely to go to school and make an effort at school. There are actually a lot of kids in school who feel like there isn’t anybody at school who knows anything about them or care about them.
[The best programs] involve families and teachers, school administrators and more. You’re not going to have any real effect unless you get over all of those barriers.
Two years ago, the Guardian took a deep look at the truancy fines in the UK. You can read the article, "Reality check: Does fining parents help cut truancy rates?", here.