Here’s a different approach to combating truancy: ticketing students who are caught out of school.
The Los Angeles Times ran a story (http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2010/10/students-teachers-at-las-roosevelt-high-protest-truancy-ticketing-policy.html) last week about how students and teachers at L.A.’s Roosevelt High School protested the policy of issuing tickets for students during sweeps around various schools. “Students are issued tickets of about $250 for first-time offenders, $350 for second-time offenders and $900 for third-time offenders.” The school police say that the law “is directed at minors who are out in public during school hours without legitimate reasons”, with things like medical appointments and work constituting “legitimate reasons”. The organizers of the protest argued that the law “discourages students from going to school… they often say when we’re running late for school, we just don’t go”.
This sounds like a well-intentioned idea gone the way of the recent Arizona anti-immigration policies.
If you read my previous post about absenteeism, you have to admire that someone in LA decided to take truancy and tardiness (which is just as bad of a problem) seriously. But then you have to wonder what the same person was thinking in assigning a $250 ticket.
Let me take a moment to explain, in extremely oversimplified terms, a key component of “the culture of poverty”. (I highly recommend that you read A Framework For Understanding Poverty by Ruby Payne, who does a wonderful job of illuminating this in much greater detail.) Those who live in poverty are willing to spend large amounts of money on big-ticket items in order to create the illusion that they are not as poor as they actually are. For instance, despite the enormous percentage of students at my school who qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, almost everyone had an iPod or MP3 player AND a cell phone with unlimited texting. One of my students got an iPod at the time his family was homeless, and several of my kids carried around real designer bags. That’s just the priority.
So, if your family is trying to find the balance between saving face and putting food on the table or a roof over your head, the odds of them having $250 to spare just to excuse your tardiness to school are pretty damn low. If I were in the same position, I probably wouldn’t want to go to school if I knew I was going to be late, either.
Here’s an alternative to ticket tardy or truant students. Go ahead and stop them on the streets and find out what they’re doing out of school; I don’t have a problem with that. But it needs to be done in a caring way so that kids don’t feel like they’re about to be arrested. And instead of writing a ticket, write down the kid’s name and forward it to a guidance counselor at the school if this is the kid’s second or third offense. Have the counselor follow up with the student to figure out why he/she is having trouble getting to school. Contact the parents to see if they know that their kid isn’t showing up. Teachers are supposed to call parents when their kids are chronically absent, but phone numbers often get disconnected, and teachers who are overwhelmed can easily de-prioritize those daily calls in favor of lesson planning. (I speak from experience.) Parents want their kids to be in class. If they hear that their kids are skipping, they’ll do something about it. And if you can’t get through to the parents, ask the kids why they aren’t coming to class – schools can do something about pretty much any problem a kid has. (Bullying? We’ll talk to the bully. No clothes? We’ll get some for you. Need child care? Schools are increasingly providing that for teen moms. Can’t read? We’ll put you in a remedial class or find a tutor for you.)
Bottom line: disadvantaged kids don’t need one more thing to discourage them from coming to school. LA Unified should implement a more individualized problem-solving approach to combating truancy and tardiness.