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, do 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 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 found 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 affects families rather than supporting attendance.