Irene SullivanIt’s a fresh start. A chance to start over. An opportunity to be successful, to put the past behind, to forge a new reputation and to have perfect attendance. The new school year offers students new teachers, new friends, new challenges and new rewards.

Sadly, for many middle and high school students, it’s another year of half-hearted attempts to get to school, cherry-picking classes to attend, discouragement, suspensions, falling behind, temptations from the outside world, little parental encouragement to attend school every day and eventually being labeled a “dropout.” 

As a juvenile court judge for nine years in Pinellas County (FL), people used to always ask me if the cases of troubled teens that I saw in my courtroom would go up in the summer when students had extra time on their hands. I found the opposite to be true: problems increased during the school year when students faced all the stresses of school.

When I presided over Truancy Court, I learned that chronic truancy—missing more school than you attend—is the root problem for so many things that go wrong with kids: using drugs, joining gangs, committing crimes, and dropping out of school.

I learned that bringing the business community to the table is the secret to a successful truancy reduction program. It’s not just a matter of an education workforce, certainly a high business priority. It’s keeping kids in school and off the street, reducing juvenile crime and thus adult crime, reducing illegal drug use and saving tax dollars spent on prisons for dropouts who break the law to earn a living.

10 Things That You Can Do to Reduce Chronic Truancy

  1. Adopt a middle or high school near to your business. Talk to the principal, find out the extent of the problem and what you and your employees can do to help. Provide mentors to troubled students. Provide incentives and rewards to students who improve their attendance.
  2. Work with your local Rotary Club of Chamber of Commerce to create signs for businesses to display that basically say: “We don’t serve children during school hours. Please stay in school.” And live up to that.
  3. Volunteer to set up a table at a local shopping mall during school hours for school attendance specialists or social workers to intercept students and talk to them about why they are not attending school. Believe me, there is always a reason, like transportation, lack of proper clothing, no alarm clock, bad bus schedule, violence in the home. Sometimes the problem can be fairly easily fixed.
  4. Organize local businesses to work with your State Attorney to create a campaign against truancy (funding poster programs and a media campaign.)
  5. Encourage your employees to be mentors in schools while “on the job” or by becoming a “Big” in the Big Brother/Big Sister programs that focus on school attendance.
  6. Understand the mindset of a chronic truant. Sometimes they have so many hurdles to face: flunking classes, poor nutrition, untreated mental health problems, homelessness, they just don’t get the adage that most of us understand: “95% of success in life is just in showing up.” So we have to understand them and help them to resolve those problems keeping them from school.
  7. Feature “turnaround teens” with some good publicity. These kids have amazing stories and need the business community to secure media attention, donate billboards, and for the teenage set, Twitter/Facebook/YouTube messages about the importance of school attendance. “Turnaround teens” can be great ambassadors and just need a little financial support from businesses to get the message out.
  8. Create a competition between schools or between kids to improve school attendance. Nothing sparks a student’s interest more than competition and an award, I found, even for chronic truants.
  9. Focus on foster kids. Those children whose parents’ rights have been terminated due to child abuse, abandonment or neglect, or those living even temporarily in foster homes or with relatives, are often absent from school as they are bouncing from home to home, changing schools, becoming depressed and defeated with the challenges they face.
  10. Commit to fixing a “community problem.” When they did that in Brooklyn, NY a few years ago by looking for kids on the street during school hours, they found hundreds of missing and exploited kids who were kept from parents, guardians, and the schools. It’s amazing what an increased focus on truancy can accomplish. At the very least, if you spot a school-aged kid on the street during school hours, call the police. It may well lead to a good intervention or even the rescue of a missing or exploited child.

Why Is This So Important to Every Community?

First juvenile crime goes down when kids are kept busy and engaged in school. Then, employers have a much more educated work force from which to choose.

In Truancy Court, the school social workers and attendance specialists used to talk a lot about the importance of a good attendance record to an employer. You might get Cs instead of As and Bs, but if you have good attendance, an employer can count on a reliable worker.

Our motto in court was “Attendance, Attachment, Achievement.” We tried hard to find a sport, an activity, a favorite teacher or a new friend for the youth to “attach” to in order to become more engaged in school. When we were able to boost attendance and find an attachment, the “achievement” part came easily. Many of the truants wrote letters to us saying how much easier school was than they thought, once they started attending every day and every class.

Judge Irene Sullivan will address issues related to students and the courts at her in-depth workshop at the National Forum on Character Education this November. Participants will explore topics such as truancy, fights and bullying in school, unnecessary charges arising out of school incidents, and court support of teachers and other school staff. She and parenting expert Dr. Scott Sells will focus on the “deadly Ds”: divorce, dependency, domestic violence, and delinquency.