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Tackling truancy, part 1: Must we prosecute parents?

How can the students learn what they must, if they aren't coming to school when they must? Councilmember David Catania, chair of the newly-resurrected education committee has been asking this question. He has proposed prosecuting parents whose kids miss school. Is that the right approach? Whether it is or not, none else have suggested any alternative.

Photo by Renato Ganoza on Flickr.

In retrospect, one conspicuous question is, why hasn't this issue gotten more attention before? Truancy has been treated heretofore as an unpleasant fact of life; some children will refuse to come to school regularly in any community. As they will probably drop out eventually, why spend significant resources to coerce them to attend school?

This attitude derives from a singularly unsound assumption that the District's truancy rate is roughly comparable with similar communities, and that this rate is essentially immutable without spitpolishing the Augean stables. By one measure, DC's truancy rate is five times the national average.

Chronic truancy, which DC defines a student missing more than 21 school days—a full month's classes—without documented excuse, is rampant.

Six high schools have chronic truancy rates over 30%, according to DCPS. The Urban Institute has different numbers, and suggests that seven high schools have rates over 40% with Anacostia high reaching 66%.

These rates strongly correlate with test scores, which suggests that overall educational reform cannot be successful without addressing this issue.

Graph from the DC council.

Naturally, the effects of truancy don't end there.

  1. This may seem obvious, but children who have no history of truancy have a heightened probability of becoming chronic truants if their school has a high rate of truancy.
  2. Truants are far more likely to drop out of school before graduation.
  3. Before they do, they will test poorly; schools with high truancy rates manifest low test scores.
  4. Criminals are far more likely to have been truants.
  5. As a result of #3 and #4, truants are far more likely to have significant spells of unemployment after they reach adulthood.
Catania offers a possible solution; is it the right one?

Catania has proposed a bill to address this issue by strictly enforcing penalties for parents, should their children repeatedly be absent.

The current law has penalties, too. Should a child miss two or more days of class unexcused, his or her parents are subject under current law to a $100 fine and up to (!) 5 days in jail. This penalty is almost entirely unenforced.

Catana's bill would soften the criteria, levying penalties only after 10 days unexcused per year. However, should the child miss 20 or more days, the bill would make it mandatory to prosecute the parents. The penalties would initially only include community service and/or parenting classes, but could include jail time if the parents fail to complete their service. Parents would be able to avoid prosecution only by requesting parenting aid from Child Services.

Is punishing parents appropriate? Catania notes that there is little else to do. Directly punishing the student, through in-school or home suspension, only increases the likelihood of further truancy, and no other penalty for students has much salience.

Is there any other alternative?

The opponents of this bill—and there are manyargue that holding (often working) parents responsible for their children's attendance is unfair, and criminalizes parental difficulties rather than assisting with them. They further allege that this essentially targets the poor, as it there is a clear link between parental socioeconomic status and a child's propensity to be truant.

What they do not articulate, beyond general exhortations for better schools, is how to address the problem. At a recent hearing before the DC Council on the subject of truancy, many witnesses raised those objections to the proposal, but beyond repeated expressions of frustration from witnesses and councilmembers, none present articulated any coherent alternatives.

Perhaps Catania's bill is the best option available to address this problem. Or, perhaps it over-simplifies the issue. To think about the issue, first we must analyze a more fundamental question: Why do children become chronic truants? We'll look at that in the next part of this series.

Rahul Mereand-Sinha was born in DC and grew up nearby in Bethesda. He now lives in Kalorama Triangle with his wife Katherine. He has a Masters of Public Policy from the University of Maryland and moonlights as a macroeconomist. 


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"none" is an incredible overstatement. See:

2. And my major complaint with GGW entries is exhibited by this entry.

a. GGW entries rarely put forth an "agenda for action" on various issues. Nor do they provide a detailed framework for understanding or dealing with an issue.

b. This piece basically complains that "no alternative" to criminalizing truancy has been offered. Yes, ed. advocates have been pretty derelict and inarticulate on this and most other issues concerning K-12 ed. policy in DC.

But just because they're inarticulate doesn't mean that they are wrong. Or that alternatives aren't in fact available. Or that criminalizing truancy is probably the absolute wrong response for dealing with dysfunctional families.

c. Instead of signing on to criminalizing truancy, analyze the issue, consider best practice and programs for elsewhere, come up with some decent conclusions and recommendations.

At the bare minimum, that's what I expect from a blog that positions itself as the "leading" blog on urbanism for the Washington Metropolitan Area.

Anything else should be unsatisfactory. And each entry should be judged on whether or not it contributes to and moves the discourse forward.

Otherwise, it's just whining and supporting really bad policy and initiatives, which sadly, DC has plenty of.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 12:14 pm • linkreport

Hmm, let's see.

1. Arrest anyone out in public who younger than 18 who should be in school during the day.

2. Miss more than 5 days of school and you lose the free Metro fares forever.

3. Miss more than 5 days of school and you can't get a drivers licence until 21.

4. Miss more than 5 days of school and you get an ankle monitor

5. Make sure the teachers evaulation is based on truacy rates.

Not all of them work. But some do.

by charlie on Mar 7, 2013 12:17 pm • linkreport

I'd disagree on your point that solutions weren't discussed. Councilmember Mendelson clearly made a point that we must do something to ensure that students are literate entering high school.

“The 9th grade truancy is due to illiteracy. To deal with that illiteracy, you’re either going to have to do something remarkable with the 9th graders or you’re going to have to improve literacy at the lower grades and that way reduce the numbers [of truants].” Here's a clip:

This doesn't solve our immediate problem; how long can we put band-aids on the problem before we address the root cause of truancy (and drop-outs)?

by Joe Weedon on Mar 7, 2013 12:18 pm • linkreport

Truancy, defined as habitual and/or extended absence from school is a pathway to criminal activity on the part of youth and a reflection of delinquency on the part of parents.

Delinquent parents belong in jail.

by ceefer66 on Mar 7, 2013 12:50 pm • linkreport

Joe: My mistake; I missed half the hearing, and reviewing the video they posted onto the Council website, I must have missed that comment. It's still not much of a solution in that it doesn't suggest what can be done for the next several cohorts; literacy improvement is of course helpful down the road, but are punitive options the only way to address truancy among the current grade 7-12 population?

Richard: Your article doesn't contradict my statement, unless, did I miss you testifying before the committee as well? Of course we'd prefer to find other alternatives, and a review of them is planned for part 3 of this series.

Most local advocates, especially in their comments about this bill, have provided vague sentiments of disappointment in the system. That's fine, the DCPS system is a bit disappointing, but nothing I've heard from them suggests an "'agenda for action' on various issues…[n]or do they provide a detailed framework for understanding or dealing with an issue". Perhaps you should provide them similarly helpful critique.

As for your comments regarding GGW generally, I think the coverage is a mixture of plans of action, and more day-to-day reportage. It's also more DC-focused, while most of your articles focus on potential best practices found elsewhere. Both are useful; we need to consider what others are doing that might be adapted for local use, and we need a source for local news about these issues. I think they complement each other, and certainly casting aspersions is unhelpful.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 7, 2013 12:55 pm • linkreport


GGW might put forth an actual agenda item in their education blog. But I disagree that entries here often don't propose an action item. I didn't take this article as suggesting that those who don't come up w/an alternative are wrong. Instead, it points out one has come up w/an alternative.

This isn't the first such article discussing truancy. People have chimed in on both sides but I think it's highly unfair to suggest that GGW has to officially endorse a position on THIS particular topic. The fact that it has not might have to do w/the belief that there actually is no great alternative.

I also will quibble w/the notion of criminalizing/prosecuting parents. In the scheme of things, sure, that will be the ultimate outcome. But, the idea is not to criminalize bad parents. It's to hold bad parents accountable. Those suggesting that this will unfairly target the poor (while acknowledging those from poor families are most likely to be truant) don't make a convincing argument.

Although I get Mendelson's point about tackling literacy as a solution to truancy. That doesn't deal w/where we are now. I would also like to see some real numbers from studies making the case that 9th grade truancy is due to illiteracy. It just sounds suspect. A reason to not seriously deal w/the issue.

by HogWash on Mar 7, 2013 1:29 pm • linkreport

first, I have to apologize for overreacting. At the very least, I should have waited on the screed pending the rest of the series. And it's not your fault that advocates don't articulate very well...

2. in Jan. and Feb. I was on grand jury duty and so I was unable to testify at the hearing. I would have, otherwise.

But I still stand on my basic point, the problems are deep and the result of some serious dysfunction, and the legislation doesn't deal with the dysfunction just the act, and in and of itself, won't improve anything.

This is something I do intend to write about some time in the next few months, a position paper on how to deal substantively and structural with systemic poverty in DC.

The truancy issue is just one itty bitty data point in the context of what we might call the DC Poverty Landscape.

3. wrt jury duty, one day I ended up talking with one of the court reporters. He sees "everything" whereas our jury just dealt with one piece of crime indictments (guns, low level drugs, stolen vehicles, escapes/paper violations mostly but with a soupcon of homicides, robberies, and assaults).

He was lamenting about "breaking the cycle" that nothing in the system does so. He equated what we're doing to "cutting the grass... it just grows back."

I thought that was a pretty apt description.

It also sets a nice bar for considering legislation. Does it break the cycle or cut the grass. Criminalizing truancy is more about cutting the grass...

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

I agree that focusing on literacy won't address the here and now. But, the fact of the matter is, if students aren't able to do grade level work, they are at a higher risk of truancy and of dropping out.

By Grade 4, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (2011) finds that 81% of DC children read below grade level.

84% of DC 8th graders are reading at the Basic or Below Basic levels; 82% of 8th graders are at the Basic or Below Basic levels in Math.

These numbers are shocking and unless we improve them, even if our kids stay in school and graduate, are the diploma's meaningful?

by Joe Weedon on Mar 7, 2013 1:49 pm • linkreport

Sadly, Joe Weedon, the research shows pretty much that if a kid can't read by 9 years of age, it's almost all over. (In the early 1990s the Baltimore Sun had an excellent campaign, "Reading By 9" on this verysame issue.)

That type of research is also discussed in Paul Tough's book on the Harlem Children's Zone, and the bulk of his second book which I have not yet read.

2. the reason I listed that Chicago program example in my blog entry is that it demonstrated a way to generate improvements for high school aged kids. Improving their knowledge, their capability to learn, and reduces recidivism. A triple play if you ask me.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

What do we need to do to combat truancy? It's a tricky process developed by a highly skilled education expert. The process is called "asking why".

The reason for truancy is going to be different for every kid but notwithstanding the common knowledge that when kids aren't in school they spend their days drafting graduate theses, the surprising truth is that kids out of school aren't learning.

For some kids the reason is going to be that they were "pushed out" by injudicious use of suspensions and expulsions for petty behavior that any sane person would expect a teenager to participate in. Because when you tell a kid they don't belong in school enough times, eventually they believe you.

For some the reason may be that getting to school involves crossing hostile territory, and they are staying home because they don't know a better way to stay safe.

We need to build a culture that welcomes students and identifies them as scholars, that addresses the issues that drive them away from schools, and that engages them as co-contributors. If we want families participating in educational culture and outcomes, prosecuting parents is a great way to alienate more families, and drive them away from a culture of participation.

by Lucre on Mar 7, 2013 2:01 pm • linkreport

and the legislation doesn't deal with the dysfunction just the act, and in and of itself, won't improve anything.

Unless you have buy-in from the student/parents, how can you effectively legislate dysfunction? Consider Friendship Charter: They force their students (and I believe parents) to sign off on a "contract" and if they don't abide by the contract, they can be kicked out. Geoffrey Canada's Harlem School Zone has a similar contract which forces the parents to be ACTIVELY involved in their child's education. If they choose not to, their child can get expelled from the school. These are policies put in place that directly deal w/student/parental involvement..essentially holding both accountable.

I always operate under the assumption that many of these problems are best handled at home. An illiterate child likely grows up in a functionally illiterate environment. While the schools can do their part to educate kids under such circumstances, it also leaves parents unaccountable. Frankly, I think not educating your child is the closest thing you can get to a criminal act.

by HogWash on Mar 7, 2013 2:06 pm • linkreport

While truancy is awfuland should be curbed somehow, the underlying problem is that this is a city where kids are used to getting away with breaking the rules. I can't even tell you how many times a week I see teens jumping the turnstiles into and out of metro stations while station managers just yawn and look the other way. There's no accountablility. Do all the studies and write all the memos you want: it's all for naught until there is a collective mentally that says--no more. You're not getting away with jumping that turnstile, with missing school, etc...

by MJ on Mar 7, 2013 2:29 pm • linkreport

@Richard Layman,

In the article you quote in your blog post you link to, they cite the success of an experimental after school sports and math tutoring program, and one of the researchers noted “When they’re in an environment with their peers, it’s hard to focus, [...] Put them in an environment that fosters their learning and they want to learn.”

Since presumably the tutoring program also involves their peers, there's a sort of obvious unanswered question as to why their original classroom can't become "an environment that fosters their learning" in the same way that the tutoring has become.

by thm on Mar 7, 2013 2:52 pm • linkreport

I think a criminal penalty for parents of a minor with 20+ truant days is appropriate.

In a situation where there are 20+ unexcused absences, there is clearly a need to intervene. Is not like the school won't be attempting other things in the process: calls to the home, calling parents in for teacher conferences to express the gravity of these excessive unexcused absences, etc. In the end, the parent is still responsible for their minor child. If they do not work to ensure the child attends school, and other less-punitive methods to capture their attention have failed, then the severity of community service/fines, short stints in custody are (sadly appropriate).

I don't believe the argument that this new law will predominately affect the poor should dissuade its passage. Many criminal penalties largely affect the poor; if that argument swayed the day, then we would have not domestic violence sanctions, or ,was against theft, burglary, or assault, crimes all of which are predominately committed by lower income persons.

I get very frustrated hearing the argument that, as an alternative to this punitive measure for severe truancy situations, we should create cultures of "scholarship," of "community" and "inclusiveness." These suggestions are unquantifiable/unmeasurable, and do nothing to address the here-and-now issue of excessive truancy, which is not being treated like the crisis it is.

by Adam on Mar 7, 2013 3:17 pm • linkreport

add to Charlie's list:

6. Make sure the Principal's evaulation is based on truacy rates.

7. Make sure the Chancellor's evaulation is based on truacy rates.

Everyone must be accountable.

by tour guide on Mar 7, 2013 3:30 pm • linkreport

@Adam more to the point, those educational climate improvements aren't mutually exclusive with sanction for chronic truancy. Neither, ultimately, are outreach programs like those Richard suggests. While the parents are performing community service, the kids can be in special enrichment classes and whatnot.

The chief question is, do these penalties make things sufficiently worse for parents that they have less control than before? That's the problem with outlooks like ceefer66 and charlie display. Charlie would punish the child severely; this has been tried, and proves to be counter-productive. Ceefer66 would imprison the parents; the children hardly thrive after they're shifted to foster care.

I do believe a stick is helpful, but it is critical that we target the parents with programs that discourage laxity but at the same time do not materially impair their ability to continue to parent.

by Rah on Mar 7, 2013 3:33 pm • linkreport

The problem is we know the "what"(truancy), but I have yet to see anyone in leadership discuss the "why".

1) Household environments - As Hogwash points out "An illiterate child likely grows up in a functionally illiterate environment."

2) Neighborhood environment - Some of these kids have to walk by dealers trying to recruit them, get harassed by bullies or have to walk by things that scare them. I've witnessed young boys (~9/10 years old) get harassed by the older boys (~lates teens/early 20s) on their way to school.

3) Emotional issues - some of these kids are dealing with some deep issues because of 1 & 2. In the Blueprint for Youth Violence that Council issued in 2009, there was a stat that stuck with me. 12% of DC youth have attempted suicide, which is twice the National average.

Seems to me truancy is the symptom, but not the root issue.

by Veronica O. Davis (Ms V) on Mar 7, 2013 3:34 pm • linkreport

@tour guide - I'm sure truancy is one of the issues principals and the Chancellor are evaluated upon, but there are frequent calls to make them directly responsible for so many different issues, inevitably those evaluations end up being holistic ;-)

Accountability for non-deterministic criteria has to be leavened by understanding; if there is little a principal can do about truancy themselves, simply punishing them harms morale without a corresponding increase in efficacy.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 7, 2013 3:39 pm • linkreport

thm -- lots of issues. note that the chicago program is with students who have been somehow involved with the criminal justice system.

But there are many problems in traditional classrooms and lives (cf. Ms. V's comment). To deal, we have to deal with that, and maybe just maybe a single teacher in some of these classrooms isn't enough. Etc.

by Richard Layman on Mar 7, 2013 4:11 pm • linkreport


Also, many kids don't respect school. They think it won't help them later on in life. They think they can play sports and get rich when in reality, there isn't a high probability they will get that spot as point guard. But they only realize that too late. We need to instill it into them early on that being in school matters.


In addition, at least some parents are hard working and they send their kids out the door, thinking they will head off to school when instead they head off to Taco Bell with their friends. In that case, the parents should have a parent-student-counselor-principal conference to discuss their issues and work out a solution. If possible, find a way for the parents (or a guardian) to accompany the students on their way to school.

by Vanmo96 on Mar 7, 2013 5:29 pm • linkreport

My son is very bright, reading well above his grade levels and excelling in math and other subject areas. When he began high school, there was no longer a school bus and he had to walk nearly two miles to school. He knew few neighborhood students, having been bussed to a school with a special curriculum in previous years. He began to withdraw and become more isolated and emotionally distant. It began to be a problem ensuring that he get up and get ready for school, but for a while my reminders, cajoling, and getting him two alarm clocks worked. Then he decided not to get up, and refused to go to school on more and more occasions. I was a single mom with a job and with two degrees that didn’t prepare me for this. By then my son was MUCH bigger and stronger that me—I couldn’t force him or reason with him to go to school. Encouraging him and praising him for his capabilities didn’t work. Setting limitations and consequences didn’t work. I had him checked out medically and also took him to several counselors. He refused to engage with the counselors. Negative behavioral issues occasionally erupted. Once I took his clothes to his Dad’s house and changed the locks on my house. His Dad also could not control him and the situation became worse. He moved back with me.
When I became afraid of my son due to his interactions and behaviors at home, eventually his Dad and I agreed to try to get help from the courts when he was in his senior year. He was given a social worker and a set of guidelines to follow, which he continually didn’t. It landed him in a juvenile detention facility where he was forced to attend daily classes. His teachers said he excelled at his work, which was at a level far above that of most other detainees. After about a month out of school he was released with oversight by a probation officer. One of the requirements was that he must attend school or go back to the juvenile detention facility. With numerous court appearances and two detentions, somehow he managed to finish the school year and graduate.
Despite his very high SAT scores and other exceptional test scores, he was turned down for admission to GMU due to his poor grades throughout high school. So he did two years at NOVA, made the Deans List each time and then transferred to and graduated from GMU. Happy ending? He has become a more mature person, although angry at times and somewhat isolated from mainstream society. Several times he blamed me for his horrible high school years, considering that I asked the courts for help. I have often wondered what else I could have done. I can’t see that punishing the parents who make every effort to get their kids to go to school would help. I don’t know why this all happened and that continues to trouble me. To this day I don’t know what my son’s reasons for his excessive truancy were.

by Uncertain Mom on Mar 8, 2013 8:18 am • linkreport

Does anyone know what percentage of DCPS+charter schools students end up with a college degree vs. significant jail time? I guess there is probably a little overlap.

by charlie on Mar 8, 2013 9:21 am • linkreport

I don't think prosecuting parents is a good idea. It assumes a one-size-fits-all quasi-solution to a problem that has a myriad of underlying factors. Sure, there are probably some parents who deserve to be criminally prosecuted for failing to raise their kids right. But as Uncertain Mom points out above, some parents are truly doing their best and are up against a whole set of challenges that sometimes just don't have any solutions. These parents are already struggling and don't deserve to have the threat of criminal prosecution added to the mix.

If this has not been done already or recently, a step in the right direction would be to study the myriad of reasons students stop showing up to school. Some are obvious (unengaging curriculum), but others may not be (lack of easy transportation to get to school, as Uncertain Mom mentions). Once you've identified some of the reasons, some of the solutions will become clearer. And prosecuting parents probably isn't one of them.

by Rebecca on Mar 8, 2013 9:45 am • linkreport

@Uncertain Mom, thanks for that. Based on what you wrote, I am now opposed to Mr Catania's proposed change in the law.

by goldfish on Mar 8, 2013 10:39 am • linkreport

Does anyone know what percentage of DCPS+charter schools students end up with a college degree vs. significant jail time? I guess there is probably a little overlap.

Does anyone know why this is at all important? Reminds me of the "study" concluding that there were more black men in prison than in college.

It assumes a one-size-fits-all quasi-solution to a problem that has a myriad of underlying factors

I disagree. As the article states, DC apparently has a current (rarely enforced) law that penalizes parents financially and w/the threat of jail time if their child misses more than two unexcused days. Even that isn't all one-size-fits-all proposal. Catania's law can be done in tandem w/all the other reasonable suggestions.

I'm open to hearing suggestions but it does seem as if the argument against Catania's proposal is more emotion than reason-based. How does the city and school deal w/nayerdowells who might be passed as a kid is on his way to school?

Uncertain Mom's circumstance is purely horrible and thankfully her son has matured. But that only raises another issue largely discounted during the previous debate on education reform. How does a school provide for a child who has shown no respect for authority? How does the teacher teach (and ultimately is evaluated on) the child who disrespects his own mom and then shows the same disregard for school?

Yes, there are a myriad of problems. But we shouldn't go suggesting that proposals we might not agree w/are proposed as "one-size-fits-all" approaches.

by HogWash on Mar 8, 2013 10:59 am • linkreport

Uncertain Mom- the goal is to reduce truancy, so would it be better if in cases like yours the city should respond with intense intervention? Are you saying that the juvenile detetion helped?

by Mari on Mar 8, 2013 11:02 am • linkreport

And it should be noted that Uncertain Mom's circumstance is an example of the difficulty in doing any controversial measure wrt to education. At some point, the gov't had to step in and intervene. But how exactly does the city make strides when it has to intervene in what should be familiar problems. Imagine the resources consistently depleted dealing w/case...after case...after case of this.

If we can't make the student accountable. We can't hold the parents accountable. Then what exactly does the city do?

by HogWash on Mar 8, 2013 11:05 am • linkreport

@Uncertain Mom, goldfish, HogWash, et al: Without weighing in on the value of Catania's proposal, I should mention that Uncertain Mom's use of child services and the courts would have inured her to any penalty under Catania's reforms.

The penalty is community service and/or parenting classes _unless_ the parent goes to CFSA to get assistance. The point is, you must be trying. If you are failing, you should take advantage of gov't assistance (as Uncertain Mom did). If you don't, you'll be entered into programs that attempt to convince you to try.

Again, the law may or may not be a good idea, but Uncertain Mom's story is rather orthogonal to the question, in my view.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 8, 2013 11:12 am • linkreport

@Rahul Mereand-Sinha: Not sure if GOVERNMENT assistance is the only valid way for a struggling parent to deal with this sort of problem. I am still opposed.

by goldfish on Mar 8, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

But how exactly does the city make strides when it has to intervene in what should be familiar problems

Familial problems?

How does the city make strides? It intervenes. That's how you break the cycle of poverty. It isn't easy. But if the alternative is that people should just solve all their problems on their own, well we can see how well that's worked for the last ~50 years.

If we can't make the student accountable. We can't hold the parents accountable. Then what exactly does the city do?

You dump more money into social services and the schools so they can coordinate better and case workers can interact with students and families more often.'s_Zone

But tossing parents in jail is hardly "holding them accountable" - your choices are apply it equally which can do plenty more harm than good in many situations, or you apply it selectively in which case you will end up with the same complaints from people that "the law isn't being enforced!"

by MLD on Mar 8, 2013 11:21 am • linkreport

Dumb parents make dumb kids make dumb parents make....

Unfortunately, this isn't a new problem in DC and certainly not one that DCPS or the City Council can fix with carrots (they've tried and failed too many times to count).

As long as people can get by with doing nothing, they'll do nothing. In life, in school, in relationships.

All you can do is cut off the spigot and hope that when things get tough enough, they wise up and start doing the right thing.

Or you arrest them for doing the wrong thing and hope they figure it out.

You can't counsel stupidity.

by name on Mar 8, 2013 11:53 am • linkreport

Also, one of DC's biggest untapped options is boarding school. If you wanted to break bad family patterns and ensure kids get nutrition and get to class, you have to take them out of their parent's houses and put them in a safer environment.

Yes it costs a lot, but you can drop TANF and all the other mindless subsidies for the parents once the kids are being fed, clothed and housed.

by name on Mar 8, 2013 11:58 am • linkreport

@MLD: But if the alternative is that people should just solve all their problems on their own, well we can see how well that's worked for the last ~50 years.

Regarding Uncertain Mom, she implies that the root of the problem was from peers. Not a lot can be done by DSS for that.

If you are a parent of a problem child, the last thing you need is social services breathing down your neck. Kinda doubt that the government is much better at this than parents.

The first answer is to give the parents the resources they need. Also, if the school sucks, who can blame a kid for not wanting to go? This is when a parent puts their child into a different school, with no court intervention necessary.

by goldfish on Mar 8, 2013 12:34 pm • linkreport

Again, the law may or may not be a good idea, but Uncertain Mom's story is rather orthogonal to the question, in my view.

I agree!

That's how you break the cycle of poverty. It isn't easy. But if the alternative is that people should just solve all their problems on their own, well we can see how well that's worked for the last ~50 years.

In this sense, I don't think it's necessary to conflate poverty and truancy. Breaking poverty shouldn't be the first step to curbing truancy.

You dump more money into social services and the schools so they can coordinate better and case workers can interact with students and families more often.

And that's the rub. The solution among many minds similar to your own is always to throw more money at the problem. We realized during Fenty's term that DCPS kids receive more money per pupil than mostly any city in the US. Yet, DC has had consistent and serious challenges w/the school. It's what we've talked about here for the past few years. Thanks for the link but I mentioned the Harlem School Zone's success up top. Since it is a nonprofit, it is able to structure it's program in ways most public schools can't...for reasons pertaining to budget and otherwise.

Throwing money into more social programs does nothing to hold parents accountable. We do the dialogue a disservice when we throw out toxic terminology like "throw parents in jail" which hardly captures the true essence behind the proposal. Jail, as in most instances of failing to abide by the law, is the last resort..not the first. You only get there AFTER you child has over 20 unexcused absences...AFTER you fail to do community service.

Sure, it does harm families. But what about the city? What harm does the city endure when kids become lawless truants. Even considering Uncertain Mom's case, do you not think the city was harmed by having to step in and discipline her child?

Again, we don't have to terrorize the discussion by characterizing it in ways akin to "throwing grandma off the cliff" and "death panels."

by HogWash on Mar 8, 2013 12:36 pm • linkreport

Rahul and Mari: My situation would not have been “orthogonal” if we hadn’t gone to the courts. I could have been fined or worse. I desperately wanted another solution that didn’t involve the court. That choice resulted in more fracturing and anguish in the family, a criminal record for my son until he reached the age of 21, and even then wondering how those records might intersect with background checks for future jobs, etc. His violations were done when he was 17. If he had been 18, the records would not have been expunged. The intervention and detention did ensure that he got through school and graduated. In some ways that was good luck--his interactions with his new peers in the detention facility (or other factors) could have led to more problems resulting in an adult record. I don’t believe that (at least the beginning of) “Uncertain Mom’s story” is an isolated family problem. It is one that is hidden from public view--not often mentioned or discussed publicly.

Rebecca: I like your suggestion “to study the myriad of reasons students stop showing up to school. Some are obvious…, but others may not be…. Once you've identified some of the reasons, some of the solutions will become clearer. And prosecuting parents probably isn't one of them.” I haven’t heard of such a study. It could be very helpful. Truancy is too often thought of as a one-size-fits-all problem. It’s not and the solutions should not be either.

Hogwash: Your questions are good ones: How does a school provide for a child who has shown no respect for authority? And what does a city do if no one is held accountable? Like truancy, these are definitely not one-size-fits-all problems with one solution.

by Uncertain Mom on Mar 8, 2013 1:37 pm • linkreport

@HogWash, it turns out that DC pupils don't get more funds per pupil than most other school systems. We'll be doing a breakdown of DCPS's budget soon, but once you factor out special ed funding (56% is provided by states to special funding vehicles, as far as I know not included in the usual per-pupil figures other than DC's) and DC's oddly high facilities cost (thus the school closures), DC turns out to have a budget that's only a little above average, from what I've heard $8-11k/pupil/year. I'm not certain about those figures—but we'll have a firm breakdown and discussion soon.

The point is, that aphorism about DC spending more than anyone else to get less than anyone else is simply untrue, the superficial result of DC's unique constitutional status, historic school buildings, and a few other perturbations.

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 8, 2013 2:10 pm • linkreport

@Uncertain Mom: I'm sure you made the best decision for your family, but current law is almost entirely unenforced, and Catania's new law would not have "fined [you] or worse"; you would have received parenting classes. At most, you would have been asked to complete some community service.

Further, you would not need to go to the courts, nor have your son convicted of a crime. The bill calls for early, non-punitive intervention by CFSA. Again, I don't know that this law would have helped you and your son. I'm reasonably certain it would not have hurt you.

Best of luck—RM-S

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 8, 2013 2:31 pm • linkreport

Richard Layman’s has a habit of introducing other parallel situations and solution as the result of not have a fair understanding of the local problem here at home. Chicago…will work in Chicago; the District has a totally different school system and cultural environment.

1) Catania is just a Diversion from Henderson Closing 15 Public Schools.

2) Catania lack of knowledge on D.C. Schools …just schools in general reveals his foolishness on the issue of truancy. The real problem is “SCHOOL DROP-OUTS” which Catania has no clue. Truancy is just the gateway to the more serious problem of students dropping out of school. In my books -two weeks of absence from school is dropping out.

Firstly, Chairman Phil Mendelson made a bad choice to assign Councilmember Catania the chairmanship of the Education Committee. Visibly, Catania has no vested interest in children’s education because he does not have any children in D.C. Public Schools. Catania is behind in his knowledge and ignorant of the public school system, what needs exist in public schools and evaluating school management officials. A complete and exhausting background on D.C. public schools is needed by Catania before he brings on the heavy hand to discipline children as his first point of business in his efforts to improve school quality.
For some dumb reason Mendelson selected Catania in the face of Ward 6 Tommy Wells who was a D.C.P.S . School Board Member before becoming a council person.

Calvin H. Gurley

by Calvin H. Gurley on Mar 8, 2013 9:48 pm • linkreport


No New School Curriculm, or better/Improved Teachers? How about opening Vocational Schools for students who are not College Bound?

Punishment, is that all Catania has in his mind. That is no way to introduce yourself to parents or children who are looking for change and improvement in this dismal school system from a DC. Councilmember.

Vincent Orange (first legislative law in 2013)is seeking to push law that requires children to be tested for reading at a third grade level before they are passed to the fourth grade.

1) Kwame Brown was pushing legislation that would require all students to sit for college entrance exams even if they have no intention on secondary education.

2) Chairman Vincent Gray devoted his Saturdays to invite students from various D.C. schools to the John Wilson Building to voice their comments and updates about what was happening in the classrooms. Now this is a splendid way to get the real truth from students about their challenges in school.

Perhaps, if Catania used this method by Gray he would have a better understanding on how to address truancy.

And, now comes the enforcer [Catania] who has no clue on how to improve the school system but knows what he knows best being negative and only looking at punishing children/students and parents.

I would agree with Catania if he was not so discriminatory in his approach….with attacking parents but not holding School officials responsible to encourage students to learn while they (students) are in school.

School officials are failing children who need addition resources, special attention and emotional support to get them off in a positive effort. But, if outside circumstances challenge the school’s positive hold on the achieving student then more resources and personal attention will be needed to put the student back on track.

Calvin H. Gurley

by Calvin H. Gurley on Mar 8, 2013 9:53 pm • linkreport

@ charlie

"1. Arrest anyone out in public who younger than 18 who should be in school during the day."

Big problems with that

1 All Charter Schools dont follow same schedule as DC Public Schools some follow Maryland. Maryland, DC and Virginia schools have different days out and students out may go to the other jurisdiction for many reasons.

2 Graduated Early; I graduated early at age 16 so I know exactly about this one. It is a bitch dealing with truancy when I had already graduated.

3 17 year old College Students

4 Discrimination; all people under 17 dont look that age and some people over 18 look young. I could pass for 16 or 17 until I was like 22.

5 Field Trips to DC or a break in school.

6 Children from southern hemisphere visiting DC ( they are on break from anywhere between October and March)

7 Teen Pregency

by kk on Mar 9, 2013 2:58 am • linkreport

As someone who spent four years in DC reads tutoring programs and 6 years involved in Federal child welfare policy, I am interested in how easily missed/overlooked/not discussed one aspect of Catania's bill seems to be.

Parents can avoid prosecution if after their child is chronically truant they ask for help from Child Services. "Parents would be able to avoid prosecution only by requesting parenting aid from Child Services."

This provision changed my mind about the appropriateness of criminal penalties, because it gives parents who want to help another avenue for helping their kids. I won't pretend that Child Services is an easy option to take, or that it is always successful. But I am very curious to see more discussion from the community about whether this option 1) softens the bill and 2) offers any hope of change for children referred to Child Services.

Child Services does not have to be punitive, and if the community believes that it is, either child services needs to do a better job of community outreach or they need to simply do a better job.

I would find more thoughts and reactions about this aspect of the bill helpful and interesting.

by Katherine Mereand-Sinha on Mar 11, 2013 7:29 pm • linkreport

The next segment of the Truancy series has been posted here:

by Rahul Mereand-Sinha on Mar 12, 2013 2:41 pm • linkreport

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