The tragic death of Baltimore County Police Officer Amy Caprio shines a glaring light on the critical need to tackle school truancy, which often is linked to crime. The Baltimore County State’s Attorney has charged four Baltimore City teen boys, ages 15 through 17, with her murder; she was run over during school hours on a Monday afternoon last month.
As The Baltimore Sun pointed out in a story Sunday, one in five Maryland students statewide — and 37 percent of Baltimore City students — miss more than 10 percent of school. According to the Maryland Report Card, in Baltimore City during the 2016-2017 school year, 21 percent of elementary students missed more than 20 days of school, and 23 percent of middle school students missed more than 20 days of school. Not surprisingly, that number escalates when young people reach high school.
More than half (53.5 percent) of high school students in Baltimore missed over 20 days of school in 2016-2017. Maryland law holds parents responsible to ensure that their children attend school until the age of 18. Failure to do so is a criminal misdemeanor. Unfortunately, resources to address truancy are lacking in the Baltimore City Public Schools and elsewhere.
Recognizing the many problems associated with truancy, including school dropout and increased daytime juvenile crime, the University of Baltimore School of Law Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts (CFCC) has operated a grant-funded truancy intervention program for since 2005.
The voluntary, non-punitive, school-based Truancy Court Program (TCP) identifies and addresses the complex causes of truancy, helping to break the school-to-prison pipeline for at-risk children. The 10- to 14-week program serves students and their parents or caregivers. The TCP provides one-on-one weekly conversations with a volunteer Maryland judge or magistrate; mentoring and character-building; parent outreach, case management services, counseling and resource referrals by a TCP social worker; and legal information and advice from a TCP attorney to address some of the barriers — such as insufficient specialized education programs — keeping students from attending school. Students “graduate” from the TCP if they demonstrate a 65 percent decrease in their unexcused absences and improved academic performance. Utilizing this therapeutic, holistic approach, almost 75 percent of the 3,000 students the TCP has served have graduated from the program, substantially reducing their truancy.
While it is easy to assume that truant students are simply “problem” children, that is not the case. Truancy is not an isolated issue in a child's life and is often an indicator of challenges occurring within the family, school, and/or community. The pervasive truancy in Baltimore City is linked to a multitude of psychological, social, economic and cultural problems that affect the daily lives of children and their families. The issues we see in the families we serve include poverty, homelessness, transportation problems, neighborhood violence, bullying, teen pregnancy, addiction, abuse and neglect, immigration issues and chronic health conditions. Unfortunately, these families often find few, if any, resources to help them.
More vigorous intervention by the juvenile justice system, suggested as a solution in the current race for Baltimore City state’s attorney, is not the answer. For example, Dawnta Anthony Harris wore a court-ordered ankle bracelet at the time he is alleged to have run down Officer Caprio. A focus on prosecuting at-risk juveniles embraces a punitive approach to skipping school that simply does not work to prevent crime. Instead, schools need the assistance of interventions like the Truancy Court Program.
If we really care about making a difference in the lives of truant students, getting them in school and back on track academically, we must get to the heart of why they are skipping school in the first place. Initiatives like the interdisciplinary, evidence-based Truancy Court Program save lives. Court involvement and monitoring cannot succeed at preventing violence related to truancy. We must determine why young people are missing school in droves and then address the underlying causes. Only then can we ensure that our children are attending school and are motivated by the hope of a better future.
Barbara Babb (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore School of Law and director of the Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts, where Gloria H. Danziger (email@example.com) is a senior fellow.