Punitive vs. Holistic: How to Address Truancy

By Danielle Wiggins, CFCC Student Fellow 2015-2016

Truancy is a major issue here in Baltimore City public schools. Research shows that the students most likely to be chronically truant come from low-income families.[1]  During my time as a Student Fellow in the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (“CFCC”) Program, I was a law clerk in their Truancy Court Program (“TCP”). The TCP uses a holistic approach to try and identify the root causes of truancy, and if needed, connect students and their families to social services and other necessary assistance.

Truancy can result from many issues such as: poor academic performance, learning disabilities, homelessness, transportation issues, parental substance abuse, financial difficulty, etc. Disciplining these students without addressing the root cause will not fix the truancy issue. In fact, it can eventually push the child eventually onto what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. “The school-to-prison pipeline refers to policies and practices—including zero-tolerance discipline policies, policing in schools, and court involvement for minor offenses in school— that push students out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”[2]

These punitive methods have not fixed the truancy problem the city faces and is why I believe the method the TCP uses is preferable. The TCP uses both the preventive and holistic approach to assist students and their families. By addressing the root causes of the truancy, the team (judge, CFCC student, mentor, program manager, social worker, attorney, and volunteer tutor) is then able to connect the family to community based resources which hopefully results in finding a permanent solution to the ongoing problems; thereby preventing further infractions by the student.[3]  This is similar to the method the Family Drug Treat Court uses where one team works with one family to reunify and rehabilitate.[4]

If the justice system is beginning a trend towards problem-solving in the court system, instead of focusing on punishment, shouldn’t the school system as well?[5]

[1] Farah Z. Ahmad and Tiffany Miller; The High Cost of Truancy (August 2015) https://cdn.americanprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/29113012/Truancy-report4.pdf

[2] Id.

[3] http://law.ubalt.edu/centers/cfcc/truancy/

[4] Bureau of Justice Assistance: Family Dependency Treatment Courts: Addressing Child Abuse and Neglect Cases Using the Drug Court Model (December 2004) https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/bja/206809.pdf

[5] Bruce J. Winick; Article: The Jurisprudence of Therapeutic Jurisprudence (1997)

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