By: Karyna Valdes

Truancy negatively affects students and society.  Students who are regularly truant are far less likely to graduate from high school and thus more likely to become a financial burden on society.  A high school dropout can be expected to cost society “in excess of $200,000 over the course of his or her life.”  These costs come from taxpayer-supported welfare programs such as Medicaid, Food Stamps (SNAP), and Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

More importantly, truant students suffer from lower self-esteem, depression, and significantly lower levels of self-worth.  These financial and psychological issues can produce unhappy young adults and increase the risks of substance abuse and delinquency.

The United States Department of Education (“ED”) describes truancy as a “serious concern that affects most school districts in the United States.”  In a 2007 report by ED’s National Center for Education Statistics, 31% of teachers (45% in schools with 1,000 or more students) agreed that cutting class and tardiness interfered with their teaching.  However, the extent of the truancy problem is difficult to define because there is no uniform truancy definition and inconsistent tracking and reporting procedures.  For example, some districts define chronic truancy as twenty‑one or more unexcused absences during a school year, whereas other districts define it as ten or more unexcused absences.

Despite the difficulties in defining truancy, it is well established that truancy has been a large problem for many years in the District of Columbia (D.C.).  On April 14, 2011, the Washington Times published an article on the truancy problems in D.C.  The Times discussed a report that found 13% of D.C. high school students missed fifteen or more days of class during the first half of the 2011 school year without a valid excuse.  A student would be considered truant for that day “if he or she miss[ed] 60% of the school day without a valid excuse.”  In 2012, the school figures showed that 20% of D.C. students missed fifteen days of school or more annually.

To counteract this problem, in August of 2013 D.C. began enforcing new regulations in an attempt to reduce its severe truancy problem.  The new regulations changed how “chronic truancy” is defined.  D.C. schools previously defined “chronic truancy” as having 25 or more unexcused absences in a single school year.  The amended regulations now reduce the number of absences for “chronic truancy” to ten.  Additionally, every school must now consider a student “absent” when they are not physically in attendance for “a full or partial school day … of actual instruction at the educational institution.”  Students who attend school for a “partial school day,” missing “at least [20%] of the instructional hours regularly provided on a single school day,” will be considered “absent” for that day.  Accordingly, because schools are in session for only 6 hours a day and only some of that time is considered “actual instructional time,” a student who misses between fifteen-thirty minutes of school without a vaild excuse will be deemed truant for that day.

During the 2010-2011 school year, a quarter of D.C. public schools had more than half of their students qualify as chronically truant.  Anacostia Senior High School had the highest truancy rates with a chronic truancy rate of 66%.  Additionally, during the 2010-2011 school year, 90% of Anacostia’s students missed ten or more days of school.  This figure, combined with the stricter definition of “partial school days” in the new regulations, suggests that chronic truancy rates at Anacostia will likely skyrocket in 2013-2014 school year.  Similarly, other schools such as Cardozo, Dunbar, and Roosevelt are likely to see much higher truancy rates.

With the new regulations came promises of many changes and positive results in future truancy rates.  However, the regulations are likely to increase truancy rates during this school year and will not yield lower future truancy rates.  Under these new regulations, all schools are required to publish their yearly truancy rates.  Ironically, despite the obviously good intentions of the regulation’s drafters, the publication of these significantly higher truancy rates is likely to exacerbate two of the core causes of truancy: 1) personal and physiological factors and 2) school climate.

First, poor personal and physiological factors correlate with higher truancy rates.  Truant students are more likely to have weaker social skills, lower self-esteem, and poor perceptions of school and their classroom environment.  The publication of higher truancy rates will negatively affect personal and physiological factors such as self-esteem, especially when students compare themselves to students from other less truant schools.

Second, the publication of these rates is likely to negatively impact school climate by contributing to inferiority feelings by school staff, resource officers, and students.  A student’s school climate can drastically change truancy rates.  “Attachment to teachers, feeling safe at school, high self-esteem, pro-social activities, and positive attitudes towards police officers” were all factors that showed a decrease in truancy.  Conversely, students who “fall behind in schoolwork, are bored in class, feel that no adults care about them, receive disrespect or the appearance of disrespect from staff,” or simply feel “uncomfortable” at school are much more likely to be truant.

There is no easy solution to truancy.  Any solution to truancy will be as complicated as its causes.  However, in this fight against high truancy rates, community commitment remains a vital component.  The District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) Case Management Partnership Initiative (CMPI) is a truancy intervention program.  CMPI takes a “family-centered approach” to addressing chronic truancy and is more likely to yield promising reductions in truancy rates in D.C. if properly incorporated into the public school system.  As it stands, the new regulations leave much to be desired when looking for an organized and effective way to reduce truancy rates.  Only time will tell if their implementation will have the desired effect.