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Truancy: not just kids' stuff anymore.

To many, the word truancy conjures memories of stem-faced truant officers stalking hapless youngsters who skipped school to go fishing or to sneak into a neighborhood movie theater. Even today, many law enforcement administrators consider young people's skipping school such a low priority that they rarely give it a second thought. If asked about the problem, patrol officers often respond by saying they are too busy rushing to burglary and robbery calls to worry about kids skipping school. Therein lies the problem. In many cases, the truants are the burglars and the robbers.

When St. Petersburg, Florida, experienced a dramatic increase in residential burglaries, crime analysis revealed that, as in other communities, juveniles constituted a significant number of the burglary arrests. In response, the St. Petersburg Police Department began to explore the relationship between truancy and delinquency. This article summarizes that research and the strategies that St. Petersburg and other communities have developed to reduce the opportunities for juveniles to commit crime.

THE LINK BETWEEN TRUANCY AND DELINQUENCY

As early as the 1800s, social reformers recognized the link between truancy and delinquency. In discussing the rise in urban crime that accompanied the Industrial Revolution, a judge of the day cited the relationship:

...where children are suffered to grow up without any moral culture, and what is worse, amidst scenes of drunkenness, debauchery, and other crime...there is seldom a case of a juvenile offender in which I am not well satisfied that the parents, or person having the child in charge, is most blamable - they take no pains to make him attend school.(1)

A 19th-century reform school superintendent who tabulated the bad habits of the young men placed in his charge noted that being truant was second only to lying as a recurring behavioral trait of the young men sentenced to the reformatory.(2)

By 1915, social scientists had labeled truancy the "kindergarten of crime." One early criminologist noted that in cases brought to the court on other grounds, nearly a quarter of the young male offenders showed a history of truancy. In nearly all of these cases, truancy represented the earliest offense.(3)

In 1942, a pair of researchers conducted a detailed study of delinquency patterns in Chicago. When they later mapped out rates for truancy within the Chicago area, they found that the frequency of delinquent behavior closely matched the incidents of truancy. As Shaw and McKay refined their "cultural transmission theory," they identified a very strong correlation between truancy and delinquency.(4)

A 1979 study of 258 adult recidivists revealed that 78 percent of the inmates showed truancy as the first entry on their arrest records. An additional 67 percent of the rest admitted being truant but not being charged with the offense.(5)

Later, in a 1988 study titled Court Careers of Juvenile Offenders, researchers reviewed the court records of nearly 70,000 juvenile offenders. Researchers concluded that for the purpose of predicting future criminality, the most likely juvenile recidivists were those whose first referrals involved truancy, burglary, motor vehicle theft, or robbery.(6)

TRUANCY INTERDICTION

To counter the various short-and long-term effects of truancy, a number of law enforcement agencies across the country have developed truancy interdiction programs. Although direct cause-and-effect relationships may be difficult to establish, for the most part, the programs appear to have produced impressive results in the area of crime reduction.

After implementing a truancy interdiction program, the Inglewood, California, Police Department recorded a 32 percent reduction in daylight residential burglaries, a 64 percent drop in vehicle burglaries, and a 36 percent decrease in strong-arm robberies, citywide.(7) Another interdiction effort in California, implemented jointly by law enforcement agencies in Chula Vista, Imperial Beach, and National City, yielded similar reductions in daytime burglaries.

Nationwide, the vast majority of truancy interdiction efforts produced significant reductions in crimes traditionally associated with juvenile offenders. In fact, when analyzing various interdiction programs employed in communities around the country, St. Petersburg police officials found only one interdiction initiative that failed to produce a noticeable reduction in criminal activity.(8)

Encouraged by the success of these various truancy interdiction programs, the St. Petersburg Police Department decided to implement a truancy interdiction effort. The ultimate goal of the initiative was to involve parents with keeping kids in school, thereby reducing the opportunities for youths to get into trouble. When developing the interdiction program, police personnel analyzed existing efforts in various communities in order to craft an approach that met the specific needs of St. Petersburg.

DEVELOPING AN INTERDICTION PROGRAM

As implemented by most law enforcement agencies, truancy interdiction involves two separate functions - picking up truants and returning them to school through the involvement of their parents or guardians. From an operational perspective, interdiction raises two initial questions for a police department: "Who is going to be responsible for the interdiction?" and "What will the department do with the students once they have been picked up?"

The answer to the first question is simple - uniformed patrol officers. Basic patrol procedures call for zone officers to know what is going on within their areas - who belongs there and who does not. Who better to interdict truants than the personnel charged with responsibility for a given geographic area? Of course, this does not preclude the involvement of other personnel in interdiction efforts. Juvenile officers, school resource officers, and detectives also should be encouraged to stop and investigate school-aged children who are out and about during the school day.

The question of what to do with truants once officers have taken them into custody is a bit more complicated. In some smaller communities - where truant children generally are found within close proximity of school grounds - officers simply return truants to the school. In larger jurisdictions, however, such an approach might involve a protracted absence of officers from their assigned duty areas. In St. Petersburg, because of cross-city busing and a densely populated urban environment, delivering a truant to school could consume well over an hour of an officer's duty shift.

St. Petersburg police officials saw such an approach as an unacceptable option, not only because it placed inordinate demands on officers' time, but also because having officers return truant children to school would not actively involve parents. Taking their cue from programs developed in other communities of similar size, St. Petersburg officials decided that establishing a centralized truancy center represented a better alternative. Remanding truant children to the center until their parents pick them up and return them to school not only reduces the demands placed on patrol officers' time but also ensures that parents take an active role in addressing their children's truant behavior.

The Truancy Center

The truancy center is staffed by a receiving officer or juvenile detective who contacts the school and the parents of truants brought in by patrol officers. The receiving officer also assumes responsibility for the youths until they are turned over to a parent or guardian, thereby freeing officers to return to patrol quickly.

The planners' primary operational goal was to keep the interdiction process simple. Administrators knew that if officers were required to jump through hoops, then few truants would be picked up. So they advised patrol officers to make their reports very brief ("two-liners") when the officers remand truants to the center. In turn, the receiving officer attempts to get patrol officers back into service within 5 minutes.

After assuming responsibility for a truant, the receiving officer determines what school the student attends. Because the police department developed the interdiction program with the cooperation of the local school district, the officer can refer to a list of predetermined contact persons at each school.

After informing school personnel that a particular child is in custody, the receiving officer obtains the student's recent attendance history and an emergency contact telephone number. The emergency contact number - often included on a child's clinic card - proves especially helpful in those cases where children do not know where their parents work other than "in an office" or "downtown." The officer then calls the parents to inform them that their child has been picked up for truancy and that they are responsible for returning the child to school.

Involving the Parents

Having a record of students' attendance histories helps the juvenile detective discuss the issue of truancy with parents when they pick up their children. Some parents arrive with the attitude that truancy is a minor indiscretion not really worth the attention of the police. Armed with information about the child's attendance record, the detective can offer a quick rebuttal if the child does, in fact, have a problem making it to school on a regular basis. Confronted with the truth, parents often express shock that the school had failed to notify them, even though the problem had become chronic.

The success of the interdiction effort partly rests with the assertive posture of the receiving officer in dealing with parents. Upon being informed that their child has been placed in custody for truancy, most parents respond quickly, eager to resolve the situation. However, a disappointing few behave as if the entire issue is a bother, and they attempt to rationalize any number of reasons why they cannot come to pick up their child. When parents respond by claiming that they do not have access to a car, the officer suggests that they call a taxi, take the bus, or ask a friend or family member to drive them to the truancy center. The officer also reminds parents that the law requires them to have their child in school and that failure to do so is a criminal act.

In a small number of cases, parents claim that they simply cannot leave work. In those instances, the receiving officer asks to speak with their supervisor. When asked why a supervisor is being involved, the officer explains in carefully worded language that the supervisor will be advised of "...a family emergency involving the St. Petersburg Police Department that will require that the employee be released from work for approximately 1 hour to resolve the problem." Needless to say, these parents frequently decide to respond without getting their supervisor involved.

Likewise, the receiving officer may be told that the parent will be unavailable to receive any personal telephone calls until a regularly scheduled break time. However, no employer has denied access to a parent once the identity of the caller has been established.

When dealing with a particularly recalcitrant parent, the receiving officer may decide to deliver the child to the parent's place of employment. At this point, the parent must explain to the boss why their child is at the worksite. Though effective, this last resort tactic is rarely employed - less than once for every 400 truants. The vast majority of parents respond quickly and want to work with the police and the school to resolve the problem before it evolves into something worse.

Interviewing the Truants

While parents are enroute to the truancy center, a juvenile detective interviews the children about their truancy and counsels them about the importance of education. Although the majority of students explain that they "just didn't feel like going to school," detectives have identified cases of sexual abuse, and on one occasion, intervened to help a child who was at imminent risk for suicide. In addition, some children picked up for truancy have explained during interviews that their parents lacked money for school clothes. In these instances, detectives referred the family to the appropriate social service agency.

Returning Students to School

When parents arrive at the truancy center, the receiving officer briefs them on where and why the police picked up their child. The officer presents parents with a letter signed by the chief of police and the school superintendent underscoring the importance of ensuring that children go to school, as well as a copy of the state statute mandating school attendance. This statute sets forth the penalties for parents whose children do not attend school. The officer also gives parents the names and telephone numbers of community agencies that specialize in assisting with family problems.

Finally, the officer provides parents with a referral slip, complete with the name of the specific contact person at the child's school. While the slip indicates that it is needed for readmittance to school and has all the trappings of an official document, it is in fact simply a tool to ensure that the parent personally takes the child to school instead of merely leaving the truancy center and ordering the child back to school. Because the receiving officer notified the school that the child was in custody, school administrators and guidance counselors are prepared to greet the arriving parent and child. Often, school personnel use this opportunity to have a conference with the parent about the child's attendance and other problems.

IMPLEMENTATION SUGGESTIONS

Change Restrictive State Statutes

The wording of individual state statutes regarding compulsory school attendance will have significant impact on attempts to interdict truants. Unfortunately, law enforcement agencies often must work within narrowly defined statutes when developing an interdiction program. Agencies can and should work with state legislatures to broaden overly restrictive statutes. In the short term, however, police administrators can be creative in adapting interdiction programs to meet the specific wording contained in state statutes.

When St. Petersburg initiated its interdiction program, Florida statutes mandated that law enforcement officers physically return truants to school. As noted earlier, the size of the city and the school district made this an untenable option for the police department. Therefore, to reconcile department needs with the limitations imposed by state statute, police administrators established the truancy center as an off-campus "alternative-to-suspension program" located at a Police Athletic League (PAL) facility. Because the classroom was staffed by a school teacher in addition to the receiving officer, the department could argue successfully that the site constituted a school.

The police department later convinced the legislature to modify the statute so that truant students could be taken to a truancy center approved by the school superintendent "...for the purpose of counseling and referring the child back to school."(8) Currently, the approved center is located in the youth resources section of the police department.

When confronted with especially narrow or unhelpful statutes, police administrators can work with their local legislative delegation to address the problem. Given the public preoccupation with issues of crime and safety, most legislators want to be perceived as strong law-and-order candidates who respond positively to the needs expressed by law enforcement professionals. And, because the proposed changes would not affect state coffers, legislators might be even more inclined to help.

Work With the School District

While police departments usually can work around restrictive state statutes, successfully launching an interdiction program largely depends on the level of cooperation provided by the school superintendent. Just as in law enforcement agencies, policy and authority run from the top down in school district bureaucracies; therefore, a program endorsed by the superintendent has vastly improved chances for success.

In St. Petersburg, the police department and the school district collaborated from the outset to develop the interdiction program. Thus, planners could work out most of the specific procedures that ultimately make or break such an effort before the program became operational. Planners not only identified contact persons at each school but also informed support personnel (such as school secretaries) what information the police would require to return interdicted students to school as quickly as possible.

In addition, by working from the top down, planners identified school board employees who could act as troubleshooters for any unusual problems encountered. On occasion, officers picked up students who had been suspended and ordered not to return to school until they brought their parents in for a conference. This practice, which effectively placed students on indefinite suspension, violated both school board policies and state law. At the police department's urging, school board troubleshooters placed this issue on the board's agenda and helped to correct it.

Work With Other Agencies

The police department also regularly reviews lists of juveniles on probation. Officers who staff the truancy center notify a juvenile's caseworker if the juvenile is picked up for truancy.

In the first months of the interdiction effort in St. Petersburg, officers were surprised by the relatively high number of elementary school children found walking the streets during school hours. When analysis revealed that 15 percent of the city's truant population came from the elementary school level, the police department obtained a list of social workers in each school who could begin immediate intervention in these cases. Departments that implement a truancy interdiction effort should develop a comprehensive list of social service agencies that can provide timely assistance to such families.

PROMOTING THE PROGRAM

Recognizing that the support of patrol officers represents the single most important factor in the success of the interdiction effort, planners in St. Petersburg worked to integrate the program into the daily operations of the patrol division. Ideally, an interdiction effort should constitute an integral component of a police department's comprehensive community policing strategy. However, to encourage "stat' driven" officers to search actively for truants, planners arranged for officers to receive credit on their daily reports for taking truants into custody.

In addition, department administrators compile a weekly report that allows district commanders to see how many truants the officers in their district pick up as compared to other districts. The report also tracks year-to-date data so that commanders can assess long-term trends. Commanders whose districts register abnormally low interdiction rates while maintaining normal to high daytime burglary rates may be called on to explain the dearth of interdictions in their districts.

To enhance the overall value of the program, administrators also integrated the interdiction effort into other department operations. Each week, administrators provide burglary detectives with a list of truants and the locations where they had been picked up. This provides an immediate pool of potential suspects for detectives in the event any residential burglaries occurred in the area around the site of the truancy stop.

CONCLUSION

No one suggests that truancy interdiction represents a panacea for resolving the many complex issues surrounding juvenile delinquency. But in many cases, interdiction, combined with parental involvement and school counseling, can help stop truant behavior before it leads to more serious problems.

The alarming rise in juvenile crime during the past decade has prompted many communities to initiate school-based programs to educate youths on such dangers as gangs and drugs. However, these programs - not to mention the regular instruction that schools provide - are of little value if children do not show up for class to benefit from them. Further, studies and analyses of crime and truancy rates in communities around the country confirm that today's truants commit a significant proportion of daytime crimes. An aggressive interdiction program puts kids on notice that the community will not allow them to skip school.

Aside from serving as an excellent crime prevention program, truancy interdiction also serves as a strong preventive measure against students dropping out of school altogether. By intervening early, parents and educators can identify underlying problems and take the corrective actions necessary to keep children in school.

For law enforcement, a well-executed truancy interdiction effort serves both short- and long-term goals. By keeping youths off the streets, the police can reduce crime today. And by encouraging youths to stay in school, the police can help reduce dropout rates and prevent more serious criminal activity tomorrow.

Endnotes

1 M. Katz, The Irony of Early School Reform (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1968).

2 Ibid.

3 M.J. Tyerman, Truancy (London: University of London Press, Ltd, 1968).

4 C.R. Shaw and H.D. McKay, Juvenile Delinquency and Urban Areas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).

5 C. Vedder, Juvenile Offenders (Springfield: Illinois Press, 1979).

6 H. Snyder, Court Careers of Juvenile Offenders (Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1988).

7 J.T. Rouzan, Jr. and L. Knowles, "A Streamlined Truancy Program That Really Works," The Police Chief, vol. 54, no. 1, 44-45.

8 An analysis of the School Task Force Program implemented by the Houston, Texas, Police Department revealed that "...the reported Part I crime rates remained constant when compared to statistics from the same time period and the same area prior to program implementation." J.R. Martin, A.D. Schulze, and M. Valdez, "Taking Aim at Truancy," FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, May 1988, 8-12.

9 Florida State Statute 39.421(lb).
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Gavin, Tom
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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