Compulsory education is mandated by law in all 50 of the United States. In general, an unexcused absence from school is an instance of truancy. But to be branded as a truant, a student must intentionally miss school with absences that are unexcused at an age at which education is compulsory in the state in which the student resides. Teen truancy is of particular importance and interest because of truancy’s link to other problems, the most obvious of these being failure to complete one’s education. To understand more about the issues of teen truancy, read on.
Because state laws differ, a student who is considered truant in one state may not be truant in another state. For example, in states for which the upper limit of compulsory attendance age is 16, a teen of that age may drop-out of high school without legal issues, whereas in a neighboring state with an upper age limit of 18, that adolescent would be a teen truant.
Understanding Teen Truancy
Because national figures on truancy have been collected from state data which do not use identical categories, it is difficult to build a precise picture of the teen truancy situation in the United States. Issues such as how to count teens who earn a GED, teens who run away, or teens whose whereabouts are not known have muddied the picture. Although the legislation referred to as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) instituted a requirement for states to create a shared definition of truancy and a school level data collection based on this definition, the fruits of this mandate have not yet been seen.
Causes of Youth Truancy
One thing that is important to understand is that students are truant for different reasons. Not all students who fail to go to school are up to no good on the one hand or irresponsible on the other. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP) has reported that in 2003, 5.4 percent of high school students skipped a minimum of one day of school because they were concerned for their personal safety.
Negative factors contributing to teen truancy are considered as originating in three areas: the teen’s personal character and psychology, the teen’s family and community environment, and the school.
Personal factors include poor academic performance; mental health issues; substance abuse; the demands of pregnancy or parenting; and lack of understanding about the importance of education. Home and community factors include family situations that lead the teen to choose to work rather than attend school; a situation of abuse or neglect; parental substance abuse; negative role models; and disdain for education among role models.
School factors that can contribute to teen truancy include poorly designed and implemented attendance policies; policies that remove the student from school as punishment; poor instruction; poorly maintained facilities; an unsafe environment; and lack of quality special education for students in need.
Guilt by Association
What is known about teen truancy is the strong links with other problems. Truancy is, unsurprisingly, considered an indicator for poor academic performance, for example, on standardized tests, as well as dropping out of high school. But beyond an incomplete education, one of the greatest concerns raised by teen truancy stems from the fact that it is a risk factor for other problematic behaviors and outcomes, including:
- social isolation
- low self-esteem
- feeling of rejection from parents
- juvenile delinquency
- substance abuse
- teen pregnancy
- significantly lower earnings than high school graduates
- adult criminality
There are a variety of programs in place to address truancy. They may be instituted within the school itself, in the community, or arise in the courts. These programs have different approaches and goals. Some focus on middle schoolers, hoping to address truancy before it becomes a high school problem. Others focus on making high school graduation possible for teens at risk.
Some programs work to make the consequences of their behavior more salient to teens. For example, as of 2004, 17 states linked school attendance and grade point average (GPA) to the right to have a driver’s license.
National Center for School Engagement schoolengagement.org
Federal Probation Newsletter, December, 2004 uscourts.gov/fedprob/December_2004/focus.htm