By Alexandra Hilton, CFCC Student Fellow (2016-2017)
Truancy in Baltimore City is a major and pervasive problem. Youth are “truant” when they miss school for unexcused reasons, such as inclement weather, family holidays, and babysitting family members, among others. Many believe that the most effective approach to chronic unexcused absence is to punish or coerce the truant child.
As a Student Fellow in the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) Student Fellows Program, I have learned that students are often struggling with serious issues that affect their ability to attend school. An effective approach is not as simple as “forcing” a child to go to school.
Baltimore City public school students are surrounded and influenced by family and personal crises, such as homelessness, addiction, violence (including domestic violence), malnutrition, and the absence of a positive influence in their lives. These issues have an impact on whether a student actually wants to or can go to school and succeed. CFCC’s Truancy Court Program (TCP) addresses the reasons why a student is not coming to school by working with the student, his or her teachers, parents, caregivers, and other individuals involved in the child’s life.
There are many options for getting involved in the lives of these students to help prevent truant behavior from escalating into chronic truancy and, eventually, school dropout. Last semester, for instance, I volunteered once a week at Paul’s Place, which “provides programs, services, and support that strengthen individuals and families, fostering hope, personal dignity and growth.” Located in Pigtown, Baltimore City public school students can go to Paul’s Place after school. When students arrive, depending on their grade level, there is structured play, such as games or physical education, community service, a homework hour, and a healthy dinner. This program is important because it provides much-needed structure and supervision for participants.
As a volunteer mentor, I was paired with a seventh grade student. When she first met me, she was hesitant about working with me. By the third week, she saw that every Tuesday at 4:00, I was there to help her with her homework. More importantly, I was there to talk with her about whatever was going on in her life. She began to look forward to seeing me and actually wanted to work with me. I saw this in the other students in the program, as well, as they would eagerly wait for their mentors to arrive at Paul’s Place. The students looked up to their mentors, who served as role models and reinforced the critical importance of attending school everyday and on time.
The TCP and Paul’s Place address truancy by intervening early into a student’s life in order to prevent chronic truancy and its consequences. Similarly, preventive law is an approach to lawyering that helps to avoid the need for future litigation. For example, a detailed custody agreement can anticipate problems that may arise and can help avoid the need for future litigation. Preventive programs such as Paul’s Place, can help provide students with the supports they need, so they never become truant and possibly end up having to go before a court. Providing students with a stable environment and role models whom they can trust and admire can be an essential step in motivating students and preventing them from becoming truant. What other steps can the community take to help prevent truancy?