Monday, October 22, 2012

Who Should Be Held Responsible?

Every Wednesday afternoon, mentors, professors, and Student Fellows from the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts at the University of Baltimore School of Law meet to speak about our weekly Truancy Court Program (TCP) sessions. We discuss ways in which we can prevent truancy. Over the past few weeks, a question has been raised as to who is responsible for the students' truant behavior. Should parents or teachers be held responsible for their students’ absenteeism and academic performance? Parents are the ones caring for the children at home and making sure they attend school each morning, while teachers ensure that students learn at the appropriate grade level and are in class each day. If a teacher realizes that a student has been absent excessively, perhaps they should report that to a higher authority who could contact the student's guardian. In our weekly meetings, some have argued that teachers should not be held responsible. Teachers should be concerned only with teaching the students who are present that day. I believe, however, that if parents do not encourage their children to attend school, the teacher is the next best person to look out for a student's education and future.

In the New York Times article "Whose Failing Grade Is It?," Lisa Belkin explains how several bills have been proposed in Florida that would punish parents when their children had excessive absences. Belkin believes that parents should be targeted for their child's absences. By looking at schools that have success rates for students in both attendance and graduation, it is clear that parents are a contributing factor. Belkin suggests that schools with low success rates should focus on gaining parent involvement. One bill proposed in Florida requires parents to spend three hours volunteering throughout a semester at a school-related function. Based on my experience with the TCP, I do not believe parents would be willing to take three hours a semester to devote to their child's school. We encourage parents to attend our ten minute session once a week to discuss their child's truant behavior, and I have yet to have one parent attend one of my sessions. Another bill introduced in Florida has parents receiving a letter grade depicting the parent's involvement that semester on their child's report card. If parents are not interested from the start, I do not believe placing a grade on their child's report card will change their mentality.

Parents are the best role models for students. Rather than punish parents, we need to find ways to instill in parents an interest in their child's education. I do not believe we should have to force parents to play a role in their child's education, but it should be something they choose to do. The TCP provides parents with that exact opportunity--the chance to meet with judges, mentors, school personnel, a social worker, and Student Fellows to provide the family with appropriate resources to ensure their child receives a proper education and has the opportunity to succeed in the future.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month

Last week during my Truancy Court Program (TCP) session at Walter P. Carter Elementary/Middle School I met a third grader who had recently been bullied.  She said that a boy in her class had been teasing her lately and had even spit on her.  She said that she told her teachers but that one of them did nothing.  This immediately sparked anger inside of me.  I thought back to the previous week when I had first met this elementary school student and remembered that she had been smiling and telling stories.  Just one week later she was depressed and quiet.

Right after my TCP session I read the news about 15-year-old Amanda Todd, another teen who took her life after being bullied. The teen posted a YouTube video, "My story: Struggling, bullying, suicide, self harm," on September 7 and was found dead in her home town of Port Coquitlam, British Columbia, just over a month later.  Bullying also made headlines in Maryland this week when a 15-year-old in Frederick County was charged with assault after his act of bullying was caught on camera. 

It is fitting that October, 2012, is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month.  It should be brought to everyone’s attention that studies have shown that children who have been identified as a bully by age eight are six times more likely to have a criminal conviction by age 24. Children who are bullies may continue to be bullies as adults, and are more prone to becoming child and spouse abusers.  Thus, it becomes even more apparent that bullying needs to be stopped so that cycles like these can be stopped.
I hope by the time I see my third grader from TCP next week that her situation has been addressed and that the bullying has been stopped.  Baltimore City schools do have a system in place for bullying; that is, the parent can first call and report it to the school verbally, followed by filing a Bullying & Harassment Form.  If the parent is still unsatisfied, they can then contact the Office of Student Support through the Safety Hotline at 410-396-SAFE, which ensures that the incident is investigated within 2 school days.

Last week Baltimore held the Third Annual Bullying Prevention Conference where participants discussed the latest research and worked to develop solutions to tackle bullying in local schools.  I hope that throughout this month communities all over the country meet to discuss how they can best address the issues that bullying presents.  It may be helpful to look at the bullying situation through a therapeutic jurisprudence lens.  TJ looks at the law itself as a social force that can produce therapeutic or anti-therapeutic consequences.  By looking at bullying with a therapeutic jurisprudence perspective, insight might be shed on how to best implement anti-bullying tactics.  That is, it may be helpful to look at the bullying policies and rules in different schools and see how each one affects the students and the rates of bullying.  Through Therapeutic Jurisprudence it would be possible to analyze the different bullying laws utilized by each school and see how they may be affecting the children’s psyche in a negative or positive way, and how each rule effectively works to prevent bullying.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Different Approach to Addressing Truancy

The Truancy Court Program run by the Center for Families, Children, and the Courts uses therapeutic jurisprudence and preventive law to address the issue of truancy. Through this approach, teachers (and/or other school officials), judges, volunteers, mentors, and parents work together to help students overcome obstacles that lead to excessive absences.  When we punish students, we don’t eradicate the reason behind their truancy, thus setting them up for an endless cycle of absences and punishments.
            Truancy programs are in effect in other states. However, the programs are run differently within each state to address the underlying problems that are unique to every school, district, or county. For example, Kanawha County, West Virginia has taken a very different approach, where a student who refuses to attend school can be removed from his or her home and put in a shelter. Placement in a shelter is a last resort, only used when a student refuses to attend school. Prior to that step, the circuit court system, school officials, social agencies, and parents work together to help students overcome attendance issues. In Kanawha County, after a student has had five unexcused absences, parents receive a legal notice from the school system, and a meeting is scheduled with the student, parents, and the County Magistrate. Then, the student has a court hearing and is put on probation. The student is only put in a shelter after all these steps are taken and the student has still refused to attend school.
            Not all students will benefit from the Truancy Court Program. Many might disregard the effort that others, such as parents, teachers, judges, etc., are putting in for them. Kanawha County’s answer to these students is taking them from their homes and putting them wherever space is available. Many problems can arise out of this situation: children who are in more need of shelters can be left out because truants are taking over the shelters’ resources, which is an issue within itself. Other problems occur when the truants are taken away from their families, communities, and schools and put in an unfamiliar environment. They may also fall behind in schools because of different curriculums – which may lead to more absences, placing the student in a never-ending cycle of truancy.
            Students who have excessive absences may fall behind in school or drop out altogether. Those who drop out of school can end up becoming involved in illegal activities or in jail.  Therefore, truancy programs are important and helpful to students in most situations. Unfortunately, there are students, such as the ones being addressed in Kanawha County, West Virginia, who will not want to or be able to benefit from truancy programs. Placing them in shelters may scare them into changing their habits, but doing so may also harm other children (who are in need of shelter services), as well as put more obstacles in the truants’ paths, preventing them from attending classes and undermining the objectives of the truancy program.

West Virginia has implemented a statewide effort to battle truancy. A 2012 survey report from the state (link below) shows that the truancy initiatives have resulted in a reduction in the number of absences from school and an improvement in school achievements, among other successes.

Read about West Virginia’s Truancy Program & the survey report:
Read about Kanawha County’s truancy initiative: