Breaking the Cycle – Poverty, Truancy and Crime, Oh My

By Kate Wolfson, CFCC Student Fellow 2010-2011

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation released a report entitled The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts in 2006. The report begins by stating:

There is a high school dropout epidemic in America. Each year, almost one third of all public high school students – and nearly one half of all blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans – fail to graduate from public high school with their class….The decision to drop out is a dangerous one for the student. Dropouts are much more likely than their peers who graduate to be unemployed, living in poverty, receiving public assistance, in prison, on death row, unhealthy, divorced, and single parents with children who drop out from high school themselves.

Last week, shortly after arriving at the Baltimore City elementary/middle school where I serve as the Truancy Court Program’s Student Fellow, I learned that three of our students had transferred to other schools. One of the students was a 7th grade girl who had allegedly disrupted a class and verbally threatened a classmate. This young lady had our attention from the first day of TCP. She began the first 45 minutes of orientation with her head down for no apparent reason other than disinterest in what was going on. But there’s always a reason. We later learned that she doesn’t eat regular meals during the day, usually only breakfast. The lack of nutrition and energy causes her to drag and get regular headaches. She’s more mature than many of her classmates and often feels like an outsider among her peers. She’s had opportunities to be in modeling and accelerated programs, but either wasn’t ready for the responsibility or failed to show up. She consistently comes to school out of uniform, because it’s not clean or she doesn’t feel like following the rules. She does well in school when she puts in the effort, but would rather do nothing. She wants to be a model, but that goal seems so far away that taking steps in that direction at this point seem futile. It appears as though most of these instances of acting out are this young lady’s means of exercising control over her life, while living in an environment where she might feel she has none. From our conversations with this student, I was not under the impression that she desired to transfer. Now she finds herself in yet another unfamiliar situation in which she has no control. Was this the right answer?

The other students who transferred were siblings; a girl in kindergarten and a boy in 2nd grade. Apparently, the boy got into an altercation with another male classmate and ended up beating him up to the point of blood being drawn. As a result, our TCP student and his sister both had to leave the school. He’s 7 years old! He was always very shy and quiet at the table. Where did this aggression come from, and why wasn’t he given a second chance? How will changing schools resolve this child’s emotional and anger-management problems? It seems as though the action taken sends the message that while his behavior will not be tolerated, no one cares enough about this child to help him – just as the criminal justice system removes “problems” from the street, locking them away without attempting to solve or fix them, this little boy was removed from the environment he was accustomed to in order to “protect the rest of the student population.” There is absolutely no way to guarantee that he will not run into the same problems at his new school, and ultimately in life.

All of the TCP students at my school are living in poverty. The link between truancy, poverty, and crime is a vicious cycle: children living in poverty, due to a number of external factors, are more likely than other children to exhibit truant behavior. Some causes of truancy are directly related to living in poverty, including inability to pay for transportation to school, not having enough school uniforms or money to wash clothes, children working to help feed their families, and homelessness, to name a few. Unfortunately, a common result of truancy and dropping out of school is that children will likely live in poverty as adults. And that’s not the worst-case scenario. Often, when students are not in school, there is a greater potential for substance abuse, juvenile delinquency, and involvement in gangs. In his October 2009 NY Times Article, Study Finds High Rate of Imprisonment Among Dropouts, Sam Dillon reminded us that “[o]n any given day, about one in every 10 young male high school dropouts is in jail or juvenile detention, compared with one in 35 young male high school graduates, according to a new study of the effects of dropping out of school in an America where demand for low-skill workers is plunging.”

Moreover, truancy can potentially serve as a gateway to the juvenile justice system. In her 2006 article about CFCC and the Truancy Court Program, Professor Barbara Babb elaborates, “[R]esearch has demonstrated that truancy is an early indicator of more serious potential delinquent behavior, social isolation, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, educational failure, and school dropout.”1 School provides structure and consistency for students; they go to classes at particular times, see the same classmates and teachers every day, and are presumably in an environment that fosters learning and growth. Truant students are more likely to get into trouble while they are skipping school, and inability to find employment forces youth to resort to illegal activities and crime including dealing drugs and burglary, among others.2 The more school they miss, the further students fall behind. It becomes harder to pay attention, grades drop, and then they no longer even see a reason to come to school. The cycle of poverty has a detrimental effect on self-esteem and forces students to look for alternative options to school. As a result, habitually truant students and high school dropouts are unable to become productive members of society.3 Is this what the future looks like for our TCP students? Hopefully not.

1.Barbara Babb, “A Truancy Court Program to Keep Children in School,” 39-JUN MDBJ 45, 45-49 (2006).



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