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The Rational for Truancy Laws

Compulsory education began about sixty years ago and was strongly influenced by labor unions who were trying to keep children from working. The participation of children in the labor force kept adult wages low. Compulsory attendance in schools also lifted some authority of parents over their children to the state, as parents could no longer force their children to work. The state’s authority in school attendance was underscored in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). In this case, the Supreme Court decided that the state had the right to uphold child labor laws and parents’ authority could not preempt that of the state. Therefore, children had to attend school whether their parents supported education or not.

In recent research conducted by the Office for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP, 2001), links between truancy and other, more serious forms of delinquency have been delineated. For example, the links between truancy and substance abuse, vandalism, auto theft, and gang behavior have all been established in criminology literature (see Loeber & Farrington, 2000 for details). The link between truancy and later, violent offending has been established in studies that examine male criminality (e.g., see Ingersoll & LeBoeuf, 1997). In turn, adults who were truants as juveniles tend to exhibit poorer social skills, have lower paying jobs, are more likely to rely on welfare support, and have an increased likelihood of incarceration (Hawkins & Catalano, 1995).

Residents have also put pressure on schools and lawmakers to tighten truancy laws as groups of young people loitering in public during school hours often appear threatening. In Tacoma, Washington, an increase in truancy was associated with an increase in juvenile perpetrated property crimes, such as burglary and vandalism. This increase in juvenile daytime crime led to a program targeting the enforcement of truancy laws in this state.

Those school districts with the highest truancy rates also have the lowest academic achievement rates. This link is usually established through truancy policies which deem automatic failure in courses where students are regularly absent. Therefore, students who do not attend school on a regular basis are unlikely to graduate from high school. Between 1992 and 2002 there have been approximately three million young adults each year aged between 16 and 24 who have either failed to complete high school or not enrolled in high school (National Center for Education Statistics, 2001). This number represents about 11 percent of young adults in the United States. Within this group, there are a disproportionate number of minority students; for example, 30 percent of Hispanics are not completing high school (NCES, 2001). This number increases to 44 percent if the students counted were born outside of the United States (NCES, 2001). Thus, the recency of immigration seems to have important implications in the study of high school dropout rates. Researchers have linked this correlation to parental attitudes toward education. However, coming from countries where education is not highly valued, parents may not encourage their children to attend school, increasing the truancy rate and also increasing the drop out rate (Alexander et al., 1997).

Failure at high school not only affects the individual, but it also affects society. Affected students cannot attend college, are more likely to have low paying jobs and feel political apathy; they then can constitute a loss in tax revenue, may experience health problems, and place a strain on social services (Rosenfeld, Richman and Bowen, 1998). A recent U. S. Department of Labor study shows that 6.7 percent of adults with no high school diploma are likely to be unemployed, while only 3.5 percent of adults with a high school diploma are likely to be unemployed. With a bachelor’s degree, only 1.8 percent of adults are likely to be unemployed (U. S. Dept. of Labor, 1999).

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