By Teniola Oludare, Criminal Justice Intern
To graduate from the University of Baltimore, we are required to complete 80 internship hours. I knew that if I was going to dedicate 80 hours to an internship, it had to be an area within my major (criminal justice) that I was interested in and one where I could gain a valuable learning experience. After receiving numerous emails regarding internships being offered within the area, I finally received an email about an internship in which I not only was interested but one where I felt I could also make a difference. This internship happened to be the Truancy Court Program. Launched in 2005, the Truancy Court Program is a program that works to identify the cause of truancy in each child and implement a plan to build a foundation for long term academic success.
In the Truancy Court Program, I had the opportunity to intern as a law clerk at two schools. One was at an elementary school/middle school and the other was at a high school. Coming into this program, I felt prepared and had all the confidence in the world. After all, my full-time job as a substitute teacher at an elementary school in Anne Arundel County should be somewhat like this one. The only difference is that I would be working with students dealing with chronic truancy. How hard could it be?
As I started approaching the first school, an elementary/middle school, I knew that this was not a school system to which I was accustomed. The first thing I immediately noticed was the lack of school buses. I later learned that Baltimore City public schools does not provide school buses for all students. As I entered the room where our morning meetings would be taking place, I was met by so many adorable faces and a few grumpy teenagers, but that was to be expected. I later met up with the school’s social worker who informed me about the gun violence within the school’s neighborhood. He explained to me about the many instances where parents would hear gunshots going off early in the morning while getting their children ready for school. I also learned that some of the students in the program were absent more days than they were present last school year. After about 20 minutes in this school, I soon realized that in no way was this internship like my job as a substitute teacher in Anne Arundel County.
When the afternoon came around, I went over to the high school. Going into the high school, I wasn’t as confident. This was because it was only four years ago when I was in high school, and I know how intimidating high school students can be. On the first day of us working in this school, I immediately saw why we were needed there. Over half of the students who were on the roster were not at Orientation – – not because they weren’t in the school, but rather because they were wandering the hallways. The school counselor informed us that they don’t struggle with getting their students to come to school; they struggle with getting them to come to class. Unlike the elementary school students, these students were showing up to school but weren’t attending their classes.
Fast forward a couple weeks into this program, we’re getting to know these students more. At first many of them were uncomfortable seeing several faces at the table. A regular TCP meeting consists of a judge, attorney, social worker, supervisor, school counselor, and law clerk. It’s important to make the students feel comfortable, so the first thing we do is introduce ourselves and remind them that they’re not in trouble. Once they saw that this program was there to help them, many of them let their guard down and started to open up; others took more time.
How we approached the elementary/middle school students was different from how we approached the high school students. With the elementary/middle school students, we knew that they were still at an age where they depend on their parents to get them ready for school. At their age, they’re still depending on their parents to wake them up and get them ready for school on time. If the parents are unable to do that, their children don’t show up to school. Another major problem for a lot of the truancy cases was the fact that parents weren’t encouraging their children to come to school. A lot of students felt that because their parents weren’t encouraging them to come to school or made a big deal about them not going to school, they had the option of staying at home. We also saw parents who want their children in school, but due to a lack of transportation, they’re unable to bring their children to school consistently. A lack of reliable transportation has a major impact on why many students suffer from chronic truancy. We can’t expect these students to show up to school if we do not provide the resources to get them there. After we find out why these students are missing school, we then reach out to their parents to come up with a plan or see if there’s any way we can help in order to reduce their level of truancy. Without the parents’ cooperation, much can’t be done because these children are still very dependent on them.
High school students are at an age where they don’t need help getting ready for school. They’re able to wake up on their own and get themselves to school, so our approach with them was different. When asked why they don’t show up to class, many said that they don’t want to wake up early in order to catch three buses just to get to school. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! Why are these students going through such great lengths just to get an education? We’re always stressing the importance of getting an education to students, so why make that education so hard to get? I had a student once tell me that if she were to catch the earliest bus, it would mean that she has to leave the house while it’s still dark outside, and her grandmother doesn’t feel it’s safe for her to do that. I honestly don’t blame the grandmother. No parent or guardian would want to put their child in a situation that’s not safe. Because many of these students get to school late, they end up missing the majority of their class periods. Once they see they’ve missed the crucial part of their classes, they feel that it’s pointless to go to the rest.
Throughout my internship, I learned two important things: one, it’s paramount that a child know that there’s someone out there who believes in them. I found that once we showed these students how much we believed in them and how they’re capable of so much more, they tend to start putting in the effort. Many of them haven’t heard a loved one tell them that, so it means so much to them knowing that there are people out there who believe in them and care about their education. Two, if we truly want students to get an education, we can’t make it so difficult for them to get to school. There should be no reason a student has to take multiple buses just to get to school, especially if that school is within their neighborhood which was the case for many of the students in this program. Transportation should never be a hindrance to a child’s success.