Report: New York’s Truancy Policies That Punish Parents Don’t Work

Schools should spend their resources on better data collection and proactively supportive, instead of punitive, outreach.

By Julianne Hing Nov 30, 2010

New York public schools are bound by state law to notify the state’s Office of Children and Family Services when a kid is chronically absent from school, and a phone call to the child protective system in turn triggers an investigation or even referrals to family court and foster care. Now, a study commissioned by that very state office says that such policies don’t do much to actually curb absenteeism or address the myriad reasons why kids don’t show up for school.

New York City defines "chronic absenteeism" as twenty absences in a 180-day school year. Nearly forty percent of the city’s high schoolers met that designation during the 2008-2009 school year, according to the research conducted by the Vera Institute.

Chronic absenteeism can set in motion a complaint about "educational neglect," but the Vera Institute found that very often, kids aren’t experiencing abuse or neglect at home. Most often, researchers found that kids don’t show up because they’re homeless, or they have to work other jobs to help at home or take care of younger siblings. Researchers found that getting child protective services involved in fact didn’t help address any of these underlying reasons, and didn’t do much to improve attendance rates.

What’s more, getting child protective services involved tends to stigmatize parents and put them on the defense, when, the report’s authors argue, schools would be better off spending their energy trying to figure out how to meet kids where they’re at to get them back into the classroom.

But changing the system won’t be so easy. From a report in the Wall Street Journal this weekend:

Not everybody is quick to want courts out of the equation. New York law would have to change to take OCFS out of the process.

"While New York State’s educational neglect system needs improvement, the solution is not to take parents off the hook for their children’s behavior," said Jason Post, spokesman for New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. "The mayor’s office believes that reports of educational neglect in children over 12 years of age can lead to underlying issues of abuse and neglect for both the student in question and for his or her younger siblings."

In California, a new anti-truancy law also targets parents, and even threatens them with jail time, if they don’t make sure their kids are in school. Many youth advocates have argued that these types of policies have a disproportionate impact on poor families and families of color whose kids have other responsibilities outside of school.

Vera Institute’s researchers did acknowledge that threatening parents with a cancellation of their parental rights seemed to get the parents’ attention about their kids’ absenteeism, but that schools should spend their resources on better data collection and proactively supportive, instead of punitive, outreach.