Truancy is unapproved absence from school, usually without a parent's knowledge.
Truancy is a serious problem in many communities in the United States. All states have laws governing compulsory education. Noncompliance results in penalties for the parent(s) or guardian of the truant student. The majority of the states require that students attend school until at least age 16. Those students who do not attend school regularly are often taking the first step toward a lifetime of problems. Most experts believe that truancy is a powerful and accurate predictor of involvement in crime and violence. The United States Department of Justice reports that 80 percent of those in prison were at one time truants. The percent of juvenile offenders who started as truants is even higher, approaching 95 percent. Truancy is different from school phobia, in which a child fails to attend school because of anxiety.
As of 2004, no national database existed to define the number children who are truant, partly because there is no uniform definition of truancy. Some districts consider children truant only if they miss a half or full day of school, while others consider missing a single scheduled class period as truancy. The Los Angeles School District has estimated that 10 percent of its students are absent each day and that only 5 percent return with written notes from home excusing the absence. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, schools reported 3,500 students, or 12 percent of all students, were absent on an average school day; 70 percent of those were unexcused. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, reported 4,000 unexcused absences on an average school day. Miami, Florida, reported that over 70 percent of 13- to 16-year-olds prosecuted for crimes were truant. The No Child Left Behind Act of the early 2000s requires school districts to report truancy, so national numbers were expected to become available. Boys and girls are equally likely to be truant. The average age of truant students is 15 years, but some children begin skipping school as young as 10.
Why children are truant
According the United States Department of Education's 1996 Manual to Combat Truancy, skipping school is a cry for help and a signal that the child is in trouble. Psychiatrists consider truancy one of many symptoms of oppositional defiant disorder or the more serious
There are many reasons why children become truant. These include:
- lack of interest in education and alienation from school
- falling behind academically in school
- fear of violence on the way to school or at school
- alienation from authority
- lax parental supervision
- lack of parental support for education
- drug and alcohol abuse
- working long hours while attending school, resulting in chronic exhaustion
- lack of significant consequences for failure to attend school
- problems at home that require supervising younger children or helping dysfunctional adults
Truancy as a predictor of behavior
Truancy is a strong and reliable predictor of delinquent behavior, especially among males. Children who are habitual truants are more likely to engage in undesirable and antisocial behaviors such as gang membership, marijuana use, alcohol use, inhalant and hard drug use, high-risk sexual behavior, cigarette smoking, suicidal behaviors, theft, and vandalism. Truant girls are more likely to become pregnant and drop out of school. Most habitual truants eventually enter the juvenile court system. As adults, habitual truants have more employment and marital problems and are jailed far more often than nontruants.
Truancy is a gateway to serious violent and nonviolent crime. Law enforcement agencies have linked high rates of truancy to high rates of daytime burglary and vandalism. In addition, they have found habitual truants are more likely to belong to gangs and participate in violent crimes and assaults.
Communities in which anti-truancy programs have been successful use a combination of incentives and sanctions to keep students in school. In the Manual to Combat Truancy, five key points are defined for minimizing truancy. The first step is to involve parents in all aspects of truancy prevention. To stop truants, the school must be able to provide parents with notification of their child's absence on the day the absence occurs. Schools are advised to create an efficient attendance-tracking system and to communicate students' absences to parents immediately.
Second, schools must have firm policies on the consequences for truancy, and all students should be aware of the sanctions that will be imposed if they are absent without an excuse. Some states have found that linking truancy to the ability to obtain a driver's license effectively reduces unexcused absences. Others have invoked a daytime curfew, allowing police to question any young person not in school during school hours.
Third, parents must take responsibility for keeping their children in school. Most state laws impose fines or jail terms on parents of truants. School districts vary in how aggressive they are about holding parents accountable; however, more are becoming tougher. For example, in 2003, the Upper Darby School District in suburban Philadelphia had 14,000 students. This school system sends 10 to 12 parents to jail each year for their children's failures to attend school.
Alternately, some states are investigating ways to use incentives such as linking eligibility for public assistance to truancy as an effective way to capture parents' interest in keeping their children in school. Another positive incentive provides increased eligibility for services to families whose children attend school regularly. Many communities also offer effective parenting courses, family counseling, and mediation for returning the student to school.
Fourth, root causes of truancy must be addressed. The root causes of truancy are complex and varied and can include drug use, membership in a peer group of truants or gangs, lack of direction in education, poor academic performance, and violence at or near school. By analyzing the reasons students are truant, the school administration may be able to correct or improve the problem and reduce truancy. For example, if students stay away from school because of inadequate academic skills, special tutoring programs may be initiated. If students have concerns about violence near the school, the administration may request increased security from the police for the surrounding neighborhood. Local businesses can be enlisted to support school-to-work programs to help students make the transition to employment.
Finally, a close link between the school, law enforcement, juvenile court, family court officials, and social service agencies may lead to solutions for truancy. Some communities have authorized the police to patrol neighborhoods where truant youth are likely to spend the school hours. Daytime curfews are also effective in some cities, where school age children can be questioned if they are on the streets during school hours.
Truancy is not normally an isolated problem in a child's life. The following comparisons from a 2003 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry highlight the problem. The first percentage given is for truant children. The percentage of each activity in nontruant children is given in parentheses for comparison.
- all psychiatric disorders: 25.4 percent (6.8 percent)
- oppositional defiant disorder: 9.7 percent (2.3 percent)
- conduct disorder: 14.8 percent (1.6 percent)
- depression: 7.5 percent (1.6 percent)
- conflictual relationships with peers: 16.2 percent (8.7 percent)
- living in poverty: 31.3 percent (19.1 percent)
- single-parent household: 45.9 percent (21.8 percent)
- lax parental supervision: 31.5 percent (6.7 percent)
- mother currently diagnosed as depressed: 11.9 percent (5.5 percent)
- parents teenagers at time of birth: 15.3 percent (8.4 percent)
Almost half of all truants live in single-parent households, usually headed by women. Parents are concerned that they have lost control of their children and fear legal sanctions if their child skips school. They also are concerned about their child dropping out of school and becoming involved in crime and the criminal justice system. Parents may also fail to understand the attendance laws or have cultural biases against the education system.
When to get help
Truancy is a symptom that things are out of control in a child's life. Parents need to seek help from the school, social service agencies, and mental health professionals at the first sign that their child is skipping school.
See also Conduct disorder.
Reid, Paula, and Elizabeth A. Whitmore. "Conduct Disorder." In Psychiatric Secrets, 2nd ed. Edited by Alan Jacobson. St. Louis: Mosby, 2001, pp. 310–13.
Baker, Myriam L., Jane Nady Sigmon, and M. Elaine Nugent. "Truancy Reduction: Keeping Students in School." Juvenile Justice Bulletin U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, September 2001.
Egger, Helen Link, E. Jane Costello, and Adrian Angold. "School Refusal and Psychiatric Disorders: A Community Study." Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (July 2003): 797–808.
American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 3615 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20016–3007. Web site: <www.aacap.org>.
National Association of School Psychologists. 4340 East West Highway, Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814. Web site: <www.nasponline.org>.
Tish Davidson, A.M.