Creating Safe and Drug-Free Schools - September 1996

A r c h i v e d  I n f o r m a t i o n


The Problem of Truancy in America's Communities

Truancy is the first sign of trouble, the first indicator that a young person is giving up and losing his or her way. When young people start skipping school, they are telling their parents, school officials, and the community at large that they are in trouble and need help if they are to keep moving forward in life.

Research data indicate that students who become truant and eventually drop out of school put themselves at a long-term disadvantage for becoming productive citizens. High school dropouts, for example, are 2 1/2 times more likely to be on welfare than high school graduates. In 1995, high school dropouts were almost twice as likely to be unemployed as high school graduates. In addition, high school dropouts who are employed earn much lower salaries. Students who become truant and eventually drop out of high school too often set themselves up for a life of struggle.

Truancy is a gateway to crime. High rates of truancy are linked to high daytime burglary rates and high vandalism. According to the Los Angeles County Office of Education, truancy is the most powerful predictor of juvenile delinquent behavior. "I've never seen a gang member who wasn't a truant first," says California District Attorney Kim Menninger. Truancy prevention efforts should be a part of any community policing effort to prevent crime before it happens.

While no national data on the extent of truancy exist, in some cities unexcused absences can number in the thousands each day. In Pittsburgh, for example, each day approximately 3,500 students or 12 percent of the pupil population is absent and about 70 percent of these absences are unexcused. In Philadelphia, approximately 2,500 students a day are absent without an excuse. In Milwaukee, on any given school day, there are approximately 4,000 unexcused absences.

Combating truancy is one of the first ways that a community can reach out quickly to a disaffected young person and help families that may be struggling with a rebellious teenager. This chapter seeks to offer parents, school officials, law enforcement agencies, and communities a set of principles to design their own strategies to combat truancy and describes successful models of antitruancy initiatives that are working in communities across the Nation.

Users' Guide to Deterring Truancy

Each school and each community needs to decide what steps to take to reduce truancy. These decisions should be made with the active involvement of parents, educators, law enforcement personnel, juvenile and family court judges, and representatives from social service, community, and religious organizations.

The communities that have had the most success in deterring truancy not only have focused on improving procedures--such as those that accurately track student attendance--but have also implemented a comprehensive strategy that focuses on incentives and sanctions for truants and their parents. Below are five primary elements of a comprehensive community and educational strategy to combat truancy.

1. Involve parents in all truancy prevention activities.

Parents play the fundamental role in the education of their children. This applies to every family regardless of the parents' station in life, their income, or their educational background. Nobody else commands greater influence in getting a young person to go to school every day and to recognize how a good education can define his or her future.

For families and schools to work together to solve problems like truancy, there must be mutual trust and communication. Many truancy programs contain components that provide intensive monitoring, counseling, and other family-strengthening services to truants and their families. Schools can help by being "family-friendly" and encouraging teachers and parents to make regular contact before problems arise. Schools may want to consider arranging convenient times and neutral settings for parent meetings, starting homework hotlines, training teachers to work with parents, hiring or appointing a parent liaison, and giving parents a voice in school decisions.

2. Ensure that students face firm sanctions for truancy.

School districts should communicate to their students that they have zero tolerance for truancy. State legislatures have found that linking truancy to such items as a student's grades or driver's license can help reduce the problem. Connecticut, Delaware, and several other States have curfews during daytime school hours that allow law enforcement officers to question youth to determine if their absence is legitimate. In a few States, including New York, a student with a certain number of unexcused absences can be failed in his or her courses. A Wisconsin judge may, among other options, order a truant to attend counseling or an education program designed for him or her.

3. Create meaningful incentives for parental responsibility.

It is critical that parents of truant children assume responsibility for truant behavior. Each community must determine the best way to create meaningful incentives for such parents to ensure that their children go to school. In some States, parents of truant children are asked to participate in parenting education programs. Some other States, such as Maryland and Oklahoma, have determined that parents who fail to prevent truancy can be subject to formal sanction or lose eligibility for certain public assistance. Communities can also provide positive incentives for responsible parents who ensure their child's regular school attendance. Such incentives can include increased eligibility to participate in publicly funded programs. Working together, local officials, educators, and parents can make a shared commitment to assume responsibility for reducing truancy--and can choose the incentives that make the most sense for their community.

4. Establish ongoing truancy prevention programs in school.

Truancy can be caused by or related to such factors as student drug use, violence at or near school, association with truant friends, lack of family support for regular school attendance, emotional or mental health problems, lack of a clear path to more education or work, or inability to keep pace with academic requirements. Schools should address the unique needs of each child and consider developing initiatives to combat the root causes of truancy, including tutoring programs, added security measures, drug prevention initiatives, mentorship efforts through community and religious groups, campaigns for involving parents in their children's school attendance, and referrals to social service agencies.

Schools should also find new ways to engage their students in learning, including such hands-on options as career academies, school-to-work opportunities, and community service. They should enlist the support of local business and community leaders to determine the best way to prevent and reduce truancy. For example, business and community leaders may lend support by volunteering space to house temporary detention centers, establishing community service projects that lead to afterschool or weekend jobs, or developing software to track truants.

5. Involve local law enforcement in truancy reduction efforts.

In order to enforce school attendance policies, school officials should establish close linkages with local police, probation officers, and juvenile and family court officials. Police departments report favorably on community-run temporary detention centers where they can drop off truant youth rather than bring them to local police stations for time-consuming processing. Police sweeps of neighborhoods in which truant youth are often found can prove dramatically effective when they are part of a comprehensive antitruancy initiative.

Model Truancy Reduction Initiatives

Each community needs to determine how it will reduce and deter truancy. Below are descriptions of truancy programs in communities around the country that employ some or all of the elements described above.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Program elements: Parents, police, and the school system focus on the causes of truancy in the Truancy Abatement and Burglary Suppression (TABS) initiative in Milwaukee. Attendance is taken every period in all high schools. Local police officers pick up truant students and bring them to a Boys and Girls Club for counseling. Parents are called at home automatically every night if their child did not attend school that day. If the parent is not supportive of regular school attendance, the district attorney is contacted.

Results: In a recent sample of students who went through the TABS process, 73 percent returned to school the next day, 66 percent remained in school on the 15th day, and 64 percent still are in school 30 days later. Since the TABS initiative began, daytime burglary in Milwaukee has decreased 33 percent, and daytime aggravated battery has decreased 29 percent. Aquine Jackson, director of the Parent and Student Services Division of the Milwaukee Public Schools, said: "I think the TABS program is so effective because it is a collaboration among...the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Milwaukee Boys and Girls Clubs, the Milwaukee Police Department, and the County Sheriff, and because it is now a part of State statute that police officers can stop students on the street during school hours."

Rohnert Park, California

Program elements: The Stop, Cite, and Return Program is designed to reduce truancy and juvenile crime in the community and to increase average daily attendance for the schools. Patrol officers issue citations to suspected truants contacted during school hours, and students are returned to school to meet with their parents and a vice principal. Two citations are issued without penalty; the third citation results in referral to appropriate support services.

Results: Due in large part to this initiative, the daytime burglary rate is 75 percent below what it was in 1979. Haynes Hunter, who has worked in different capacities on the issue of truancy in Rohnert Park for more than 15 years, reported that the program is effective because it is a "high-visibility" effort. "Being on the street, being in contact with the kids makes them aware of the fact that we care. We want them to get their education."

New Haven, Connecticut

Program elements: The Stay in School Program targets middle school students who have just begun to have problems. Targeted students go to truancy court where a panel of high school students question them and try to identify solutions. After court, youth and attorney mentors are assigned to each student for support. The student and the court sign a written agreement, and after 2 months, students return to the court to review their contract and report on their progress.

Results: Denise Keyes Page, who recruits and trains mentors for this initiative, said: "This program works because it harnesses the power of peer pressure. Truants are judged and mentored by their peers, instead of just by adults who may seem distant and unconnected. Our program uses both the carrot and stick approaches, providing both supportive mentorship and real courtroom accountability to truant students. One of the evolving strengths of the program is that not only are we providing support to the truant, but we are serving as a resource to their parents."

Atlantic County, New Jersey

Program elements: The Atlantic County Project Helping Hand receives referrals from six Atlantic City and four Pleasantville elementary schools for youth in kindergarten through eighth grade who have 5 to 15 days of unexcused absences. A truancy worker meets with the youth and family to provide short-term family counseling, usually up to eight sessions. Referrals for additional social services are made on an as-needed basis. If the family fails to keep appointments, home visits are made to encourage cooperation. Once a truancy problem is corrected, the case is closed and placed on an aftercare/monitoring status with contact made at 30-, 60-, and 90-day intervals to ensure that truancy does not persist.

Results: During the past school year, 84 percent of the students who participated in the Atlantic County program had no recurrence of truancy. Colleen Denelsback of Project Helping Hand stated: "Our philosophy is one of early intervention, regarding both the age level and the number of unexcused absences. We stress that the earlier intervention takes place, the greater the chance for positive outcomes. Early intervention will prevent truancy and later delinquency."

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Program elements: The THRIVE (Truancy Habits Reduced Increasing Valuable Education) initiative is a comprehensive antitruancy program spurred by an ongoing community partnership of law enforcement, education, and social service officials. Police bring a suspected truant to a community-run detention center where, within 1 hour of arrival, officials assess the youth's school status, release the youth to a parent or relative, and refer the family to any needed social service agencies. Parents are notified by the district attorney of potential consequences for repeat behavior. Parents who harbor youth with 15 days of consecutive unexcused absences are subject to misdemeanor charges.

Results: Since THRIVE's inception in 1989, the Oklahoma City Police Department reports a 33-percent drop in daytime burglary rates. Tom Steemen, the parent of a student who went through THRIVE, commented: "The first I heard of the program was when my son was caught and taken to the center. I was real glad to know they had something like THRIVE." His son Ken, age 15, said, "THRIVE shook me up. I knew [while in the police car] just how wrong I was."

Norfolk, Virginia

Program elements: The Norfolk, Virginia, school district uses software to collect data on students who are tardy, cut class, leave grounds without permission, are truant but brought back to school by police, or are absent without cause. Each school has a team composed of teachers, parents, and school staff that examines the data to analyze truancy trends. For example, a team may try to pinpoint particular locations where truant students are found during school hours and then place additional monitors in these locations. A team may also notice certain months when truancy is prevalent and then design special programs to curb truancy during those months.

Results: Ann Hall of the Norfolk Public Schools stated: "Attendance has improved at all levels of schools since 1992--2 percent at the elementary and secondary levels. The overall district average is up 1 percent. This is significant in that the legal attendance rate for 1994-95 is up to 93 percent. Tighter attendance policies, grading practices, and teamwork have led to this improvement...There are few, if any, teachers complaining that discipline and law violations are not being handled consistently throughout the district. This is a marked improvement over the report that was made in the teacher satisfaction survey conducted in 1988."

Marion, Ohio

Program elements: The Community Service Early Intervention Program focuses on potential truants during freshman year. Referred students are required to attend tutoring sessions as directed, give their time to community service projects, and participate in a counseling program. In addition, students are required to give back to the intervention initiative by sharing what they have learned with new students in the program and by recommending it to others who might benefit. Parental participation is required throughout the program. When the student has completed the 6-week sequence, school records relative to truancy are nullified. If the student fails the program, formal court intervention is the next step.

Results: Of the 28 students who took part in the program one recent semester, 20 had improved attendance records and were expected to pass freshman year. The eight who did not improve their attendance records either moved from the school district or were removed from the school for failure to meet attendance requirements. Misty Swanger, community educator for this initiative, saw a general improvement in the grades and behavior of the students. Executive Director Christine Haas noted: "This program is a combination of early intervention and early attention. As long as the child knows that someone is watching out for them and taking an interest in them, they will not be truant. The attention factor is very important. It creates success." The intervention program has already identified 100 ninth-grade students with truancy problems to work with in the coming year.

Peoria, Arizona

Program elements: In Operation Save Kids, school officials contact the parents of students with three unexcused absences. Parents are expected to inform school officials of steps they have taken to ensure their children regularly attend school. When students continue to be truant, cases are referred to the local district attorney. To avoid criminal penalty and a $150 parent fine, youth are required to participate in an intensive counseling program, and parents must attend a parenting skills training program.

Results: Since Operation Save Kids began 2 years ago, daytime juvenile property crime rates have declined by 65 percent. Truancy citywide has been cut in half since 1994. "Look at today's truant, and you're looking at tomorrow's criminal," said Assistant City Attorney Terry Bays Smith.

Bakersfield, California

Program elements: A consortium of school districts in Kern County, California, formed the Truancy Reduction Program. Local schools reach out to youth with a history of truancy through parent contact, peer tutoring, and mentoring services. Persistently truant youth are referred to the County Probation Office. Probation officers visit parents at home one-on-one, check on the youth at school weekly, and in the majority of cases refer youth and their families to one or more needed social service agencies. The County Probation Office and the local school continue to track the youth for a full year before making a referral to the local District Attorney's Office.

Results: "The majority of graduates of the Truancy Reduction Program's first year no longer present a truancy problem," according to the Kern County Public Schools coordinator, Steve Hageman. More than a fifth of that 1994 class had perfect school attendance records in the year following their participation.


The U.S. Department of Justice provides Federal funding to States to implement local delinquency prevention programs, including programs that address truancy. Many of these programs address risk and protective factors. A large portion of the funding comes from the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act Formula Grants Program, which is administered by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Office of Justice Programs. For more information contact the Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, 800-638-8736.

Under a jointly funded project, the Department of Justice and the Department of Education have developed a training and technical assistance project to help communities develop or enhance truancy prevention/intervention programs and programs that target related problems of youth out of the education mainstream. Training and technical assistance will be made available to 10 jurisdictions through a competitive application process in 1996. For more information contact Ron Stephens at the National School Safety Center, 805-373-9977.

For more information about the programs in this chapter, please call the U.S. Department of Education Safe and Drug-Free Schools Office at 202-260-3954.

[Drug Testing Student Athletes] [Table of Contents] [Uniforms]