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Phoenix Forward

Should public school districts put parents of truant kids in jail?

Chalk drawing of a family

Truancy officers were once a normal part of public school staffs — they prowled neighborhoods, shopping malls and school parking lots looking for kids skipping out to “play hooky.” Although technology like automatic phone dialers to notify parents of their child's absence, and electronic student ID systems that track attendance, have largely replaced the truancy officer, truancy remains a serious problem. Some public school districts, like one in Halifax County, N.C., are even putting parents in jail for their children’s truancy. But is that really a good idea? Some school administrators don’t think so.

“Truancy is a complicated issue, and it’s often an outcome of kids’ dysfunctional home situations,” says Richard Patterson, PhD, a former principal and public school administrator who currently serves as campus college chair for the College of Education at the University of Phoenix Southern Colorado Campus.

While Patterson has had to take some students and parents to truancy court (and jail) during his 30-year career, he believes there are better options.

“I think that the best way to address truancy is to reach out to the kids and build a relationship with them, rather than always relying on punitive measures,” he says. “There are far more productive and positive ways to address this problem than jailing parents.”

I find that when you really inconvenience the parents, that is often the only thing that works.

Making parents accountable for children’s truancy doesn’t necessarily have to involve jail time, either. “I would often just say to a parent, ‘Be really tough on this kid,’ and that alone would solve the problem,” says Patterson. “Some parents just need someone else in authority to say the hard things in front of their child, and then they take it from there.”

“I had one parent make his truant twin daughters move a pile of rocks back and forth from the front yard to the back yard while they were suspended,” he says. “That worked like a charm.”

Judith Martin-Tafoya, EdS, administers student-teaching seminars at the University of Phoenix New Mexico Campus, and spent more than 30 years in public education, including serving as a principal. “I deal with truancy constantly,” says Martin-Tafoya. “It’s a chronic problem.”

While New Mexico has strict truancy laws, they are not enforced, according to Martin-Tafoya. “I can’t rely on the court system, so I have to take matters into my own hands,” she says.

However, Martin-Tafoya has found a way to engage parents in her disciplinary methods. “I frequently remove truant students from my school’s enrollment, which then requires the parents to come in and go through the entire process of re-enrollment for their children to attend again. I find that when you really inconvenience the parents, that is often the only thing that works.”

All levels of society have a stake in keeping children in school, she says. “When kids miss too much school, especially from an early age, they never catch up,” she says. “That’s harmful to our country. We as adult educators and parents really have to own this problem and help solve it together.”

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