Courts in Arizona Attack Truancy through Legal Action
[caption id="attachment_841" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of sakhorn38"][/caption] Cutting class in high school, for many teens, may seem like a rite of passage. Once they get through all the work of elementary school and junior high, the concept of playing hooky “just because” has a great appeal – and, when done once or twice, it’s not a huge problem. However, the once or twice maxim is rarely the case. Instead, truancy seems to be a growing issue for many high schools and junior highs throughout the country. This is a problem that needs to be addressed more seriously, as one Arizona court has brought to the forefront. Maricopa County judge, Dan Dodge recently held a hearing last spring for 79 truant students and their parents in the Mesa School District. Though their excuses varied from insomnia to an aversion to high school “drama,” the message to each was the same: shape up or face criminal misdemeanor charges. Mesa’s Groundbreaking Policy The Mesa School district, located just east of Phoenix, is the largest in the state, and also the toughest on truants. The district’s truancy policy is tough and unforgiving: When a student has five (5) or more unexcused or excessive (18 or more) excused absences, the student will be cited to the Juvenile Court in Maricopa County. Both a parent/guardian and the student will be expected to appear at the hearing. Consequences will be issued at the hearing as well as an assessment fee for the parent/guardian. Failure to complete the consequences issued, may result in the prosecution of the student at the Juvenile Court and/or the parent/guardian being cited to City Court for violation of a misdemeanor offense. Sentencing for an adult convicted of a misdemeanor offense may include a large fine and/or jail time. In addition to these harsh rules, the district employs nine security officers charged with upholding this truancy policy. The officers are sworn members of law enforcement, carry pepper spray and are trained in the proper ways to detain loitering and truant students until local police arrive. Why Addressing Truancy Is So Important Other districts in the area, such as Peoria, to the north of Phoenix, are similarly concerned with the problems that truancy presents. However, their means are not nearly as extreme. The districts “Sweeps” program requires students to explain absences to teachers, encouraging accountability for their actions. This raises the question as to the utility of such policies as well as their justification. On that front, Mesa’s extreme measures seem to be in the right vein. Experts in juvenile crime and delinquency often cite truancy as an important forbearer to future problems. With its obvious association with dropout rates aside, students with a history of truancy are far more likely to engage in criminal behavior which includes gang activity (a problem rampant in Mesa), vandalism, drug use and burglary among others. As well, truant students often congregate in empty homes, leading to a negative strength in numbers. Bottom Line: It Works Though the truancy policy in Mesa seems a bit over-the-top at first, its success rates cannot be denied. Last year, 71% of the students cited by Maricopa County court returned to school without an issue, and only 12 of the students addressed in Dodge’s court continued to have problems a year later. The fact is, when school and law enforcement officials take the time to address truancy problems, most students (and parents) immediately take steps towards reform. In addition, those students experiencing problems with “drama” (high school code for bullying) are offered the support that they need once their problems are out in the open. Switching classes or schools can often make the difference between truancy leading to dropping out and success in the remainder of high school. Do you feel that the measures taken by Mesa Public Schools to address truancy are too extreme?