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Testimony: District of Columbia Council Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy 2011

Children’s Law Center Executive Director Judith Sandalow testified before the DC Council’s newly-formed Special Committee on School Safety and Truancy, emphasizing the need for improved interventions for families struggling with truancy and a holistic approach that fully considers truancy’s root causes.

The District’s public schools reported a 20 percent truancy rate during the 2008-2009 school year. A recent newspaper article noted that 3,700 DCPS students were truant in the first semester of the 2010-2011 school year.

Sandalow testified that truancy stems from three main areas – personal, home/community and school factors. Examples include: unmet physical and mental health needs, family health or financial concerns that pressure the student to care for family members or work rather than attend school, parental alcoholism or drug abuse, teen pregnancy and parenting, community violence that makes it unsafe to travel from home to school, policies that use suspension as punishment for truancy and unsafe and unwelcoming schools.

Mental health is a critical area of need, Sandalow explained. The District’s public mental health system needs significant improvement to screen and provide more proven services for children. Additionally, Sandalow advocated for programs which focus on improving parenting skills and parent-child relationships, and called for the expansion of school-based mental health programs.

Additionally, the District should focus on resolving the attendance problems of younger students, Sandalow said. Truancy in early childhood is shown to have significant and long-lasting negative consequences. Solving attendance problems when children are young can prevent chronic truancy when they are older.

Sandalow encouraged the Council to fund two 2010 bills which could help with truancy but are presently without funding and thus not in effect.

First, the Families Together Amendment Act of 2010, which would permit the Child and Family Services Agency (CFSA) to respond more effectively to thousands of child protection hotline calls each year. Through this act, CFSA can provide services to low-risk families rather than investigate them, which is particularly appropriate for truancy cases where there is no risk of physical harm or high-level neglect, but the family is in need of services.

And second, the Safe Children and Safe Neighborhoods Educational Neglect Mandatory Reporting Act, which would require school officials and other mandatory reporters of abuse and neglect to call CFSA when children 5- to 13-years-old have 10 or more unexcused absences. The cost of this bill, Sandalow noted, could be reduced if the law was amended to focus on elementary school children, for whom the approach is most effective.

In addition, Sandalow made the following recommendations to the Committee and Council:

  • Investigate whether 2009 school reforms set forth by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to address truancy are being used and working
  • Ensure DC schools have effective and consistently applied attendance policies rather than push-out policies such as suspension as a punishment for truancy
  • Ensure DC schools are implementing a behavior intervention model which is proven to reduce classroom discipline problems and improve attendance
  • Explore the idea of restarting and expanding the Family Court Truancy Diversion Program, which brings a family court judge into schools to intervene in truancy cases and was piloted in three District middle schools several years ago.

 

Read the full testimony here