AuthorJeffrey Wilson

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Truancy, also called skipping school, is defined by all states as unexcused absences from school without the knowledge of a parent or guardian. It has been romanticized through literature and films by characters such as Tom Sawyer and Ferris Bueller as the harmless mischief juveniles do on sunny days. But the fact is juveniles who are school-aged are required by all states to attend school, whether that school be public, private, parochial, or some other educational forum. Truancy is, therefore, a status offense as it only applies to people of a certain age. The school age of a juvenile varies from state to state, with most states requiring attendance either from age six to age 17 or from age five to 18. There are a number of exceptions, such as Pennsylvania, which denotes school age as between eight and 17 and Illinois which denotes school age as between seven and 16.

The number of days required in order for a juvenile to be labeled "truant," varies by school, school district, and state. State legislation tends to provide some guidelines for school districts by setting a maximum number of absences allowed. School districts then tighten these guidelines. For example, in Pennsylvania, a truant is a school-aged juvenile who is absent from school more than three times after a notice of truancy has been sent to the juvenile's home. In Louisiana, a juvenile is deemed truant after the fifth unexcused absence from school, provided the absences occur in a single month. Many school districts define truancy as any unexcused absence, where unexcused means the student has left school property without parental or school permission.

The Rational for Truancy Laws

Compulsory education began about sixty years ago and was strongly influenced by labor unions who were trying to keep children from working. The participation of children in the labor force kept adult wages low. Compulsory attendance in schools also lifted some authority of parents over their children to the state, as parents could no longer force their children to work. The state's authority in school attendance was underscored in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). In this case, the Supreme Court decided that the state had the right to uphold child labor laws and parents' authority could not preempt that of the state. Therefore, children had to attend school whether their parents supported education or not.

In recent research conducted by the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP, 2001), links between truancy and other, more serious forms of delinquency have been delineated. For example, the links between truancy and substance abuse, vandalism, auto theft, and gang behavior

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have all been established in criminology literature (see Loeber & Farrington, 2000 for details). The link between truancy and later, violent offending has been established in studies that examine male criminality (e.g., see Ingersoll & LeBoeuf, 1997). In turn, adults who were truants as juveniles tend to exhibit poorer social skills, have lower paying jobs, are more likely to rely on welfare support, and have an increased likelihood of incarceration (Hawkins & Catalano, 1995).

Residents have also put pressure on schools and lawmakers to tighten truancy laws as groups of young people loitering in public during school hours often appear threatening. In Tacoma, Washington, an increase in truancy was associated with an increase in juvenile perpetrated property crimes, such as burglary and vandalism. This increase in juvenile daytime crime led to a program targeting the enforcement of truancy laws in this state.

Those school districts with the highest truancy rates also have the lowest academic achievement rates. This link is usually established through truancy policies which deem automatic failure in courses where students are regularly absent. Therefore, students who do not attend school on a regular basis are unlikely to graduate from high school. Between 1992 and 2002 there have been approximately three million young adults each year aged between 16 and 24 who have either failed to complete high school or not enrolled in high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). This number represents about 11 percent of young adults in the United States. Within this group, there are a disproportionate number of minority students; for example, 30 percent of Hispanics are not completing high school (NCES, 2001). This number increases to 44 percent if the students counted were born outside of the United States (NCES, 2001). Thus, the recency of immigration seems to have important implications in the study of high school dropout rates. Researchers have...

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