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Truancy Definition, Facts and Laws

What is Truancy?

The definition of truancy is usually established by school district policy and may vary across districts.  Definitions for an excused absence, an unexcused absence, or a truancy can vary by state and even school districts.

Any unexcused absence from school is considered a truancy, but states enact their own school attendance laws. State law determines 1) the age at which a child is required to begin attending school, 2) the age at which a child may legally drop out of school, and 3), the number of unexcused absences at which a student is considered legally truant.

Truancy is a status offense – an act that is a crime due to the young age of the actor, but would not be illegal for someone older. The other most common status offenses are running away from home, alcohol use, curfew violations, and ungovernability.

Truancy:  An Overview of the Problem

Generally, absentee rates are highest in public schools in the inner-city where larger numbers of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches source: (Heaviside et al., 1998). (Higher truancy rates generally correlate with poverty; higher rates of free and reduced-price lunches are typically used as evidence of poverty.)

National Truancy Statistics:

Truancy and ungovernability case rates peaked at age 15 and runaway case rates peaked at age 16. In contrast, status liquor law violation case rates increased continuously with age: from 1.8 at age 15 to 6.3 at age 17.

While there is not an abundance of national truancy data, some metropolitan areas report thousands of unexcused absences each day.
(source: DeKalb, Jay, “Student Truancy,” ERIC Digest 125, April 1999.)

Data from Wisconsin show that during the 1998-99 school year, 15,600 students or 1.6% of enrolled students were truant per day. Truancy accounted for about 1/3 of total
absences that year. Truancy rates in the 10 largest urban school districts were twice as high as the state average.

Legislative Audit Committee of the State of Wisconsin, “A Best Practices Review: Truancy Reduction Efforts,” August 2000.

Students with behavioral problems are often assigned to a counselor, but school counselors have large caseloads. Public high schools employed one counselor for every 284 students in 2002. Large schools (1,200+ students) employed one counselor for every 335 students. Counselors in schools with over 50% minority enrollment were responsible for 22% more students than their colleagues in low minority enrollment schools – 313 compared to 256 students.

National Center for Education Statistics, Fast Response Survey System, “Table 12: Number of guidance staff and counselors, and the number of students per guidance staff and per counselor assigned to public high school students, by selected school,”

http://nces.ed.gov/surveys/frss/publications/2003015/images/tab12.gif, October 1, 2004.

Boys are only slightly more likely to be sent to court for truancy than girls.

According to juvenile court statistics collected by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, 54% of all petitioned truancy cases between 1990 and 1999 were for males, and 46% were for females.  [source: Puzzanchera, C., et. al., Juvenile Court Statistics 1999, National Center for Juvenile Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, July 2003

Consequences of Truancy

• Dropping out of school. Students who are chronically truant typically fall behind in grade level and drop out of school.
• Delinquency. Students who are chronically truant are also at-risk for other behaviors, such as alcohol and drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, and delinquency.
• Negative effect upon other students. Students who are chronically truant require extra time from teachers; teachers have less time to spend with the regularly-attending students in the classroom when they must create make-up work for truants.

Causes of Truancy

What influences truancy? In early research, depending upon the perspective of the researcher, truancy was said to be caused by the student, the student’s family, or the school. More recently, it is understood that a combination of all three factors usually affect truancy:

Characteristics of the Student:

• low grades in reading and mathematics
• neurological factors, such as dyslexia
• inability to make friends with mainstream students or teachers
• negative attitudes toward school or teachers

Characteristics of the Student’s Family:
• parent(s) who do not value education
• parent(s) who did not complete school, were truant themselves
• poor parenting skills
• low socio-economic status
• physical or mental health problems of parents
• family history of delinquency
• single parent families
• many children in the family

Characteristics of the School:
• weak or no monitoring of daily attendance
• inconsistent attendance policies
• lack of parent involvement in the school
• lack of personalized attention to students
• lack of teacher expectations for high student achievement

Results of high school failure

No one really knows what the drop out rate for truants is; most school districts do not collect the data.  Data from the 2000 census show that high school dropouts had only a 52% employment rate in 1999, compared to 71% for high school graduates, and 83% for college graduates. Of those who worked full-time year-round in 1999, high school drop outs earned only 65% of the median earnings.

http://www.census.gov/hhes/income/earnings/call1usboth.html/

For every race and gender group, high school dropouts claim more in government-funded social services expenditures than high school graduates. For men in particular,
dropouts incur more in criminal justice costs. The average dropout costs more than $200,000 in current dollars over the course of his or her lifetime.

Vernez, Georges, Richard A. Krop, and C. Peter Rydell, Closing the Education Gap: Benefits and Costs, RAND MR-1036-EDU, 1999.

As of 1997, 41% of prison inmates, and 31% percent of probationers 18 years and older had not graduated from high school or earned a GED, compared with 18% of the general population.  Harlow, C. W., “Education and Correctional Populations,” Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report, January 2003, NCJ 195670.

School attendance laws

Compulsory education laws are determined by state legislation. States typically require school attendance from the ages of six to 16, but variations in laws meanthat depending on a child’s state of residence, (s)he is required to attend as few as nine or as many as thirteen years of school. Only 16 states require attendance until the age typical of high school graduation.

In most states, young people are entitled to receive public education until the age of 21, yet anecdotal evidence suggests that failing students who are expected tolower schools’ standardized test scores are often encouraged to withdraw.  State laws also vary regarding the definition of truancy.

South Carolina attendance law is reproduced in an appendix. The No Child Left Behind Act requires schools and districts to report attendance rates for the first time, yet differences in state definitions mean that no aggregated national data on truancy will be available even under the new regulations.

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