Fiscal Year 2014-15 Performance Oversight Hearing on the Deputy Mayor for Education

Testimony of Alex Peerman, Policy and Advocacy Associate
Tuesday, March 10, 2015, 2015, 10:00 a.m.
John A. Wilson Building
1350 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC

Introduction

Good morning Chairman Grosso, and members of the Committee on Education.  My name is Alex Peerman and I am the Policy and Advocacy Associate at DC Lawyers for Youth, a research, advocacy, and direct service organization that seeks to improve DC’s youth justice system. Thank you for the opportunity to testify today at the performance oversight hearing for the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME).

As youth justice advocates, we want the best outcomes for DC children, and being engaged in and successful at school places youth on the path to productive adulthood. My testimony today will focus on school attendance and the DME’s role as co-chair of the Truancy Task Force. In particular, DC Lawyers for Youth is concerned that lowering the threshold of unexcused absences required for Family Court referral has increased the number of DC youth exposed to counter-productive court interactions. Our understanding is that the Council intended for court referral to occur only after a student has received robust school-based early intervention that proved ineffective.[1] In practice, however, schools lack the staff resources to perform the required volume of early interventions,[2] and because there is no legal requirement that supportive services be provided before court referral, students are placed at risk of inappropriate prosecution.

The Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 has increased the number of students referred to court for truancy prosecution.

The Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 lowered the number of unexcused absences after which schools are required to refer a student to Family Court from 25 to 15.[3] In calendar year 2012, the Family Court handled 222 complaints that a child was a “person in need of supervision,” a category that includes truancy.[4] In 2013, which included the first school semester after the new threshold took effect, that number nearly doubled, to 427 complaints.[5] In addition, the Family Court received approximately 750 referrals that were returned to the school “due to failure to demonstrate efforts to intervene and abate the truancy.”[6]

2014 was the first full calendar year in which the lower threshold was in effect, so the Truancy Task Force and Council should keep a close eye on the Family Court’s upcoming annual report to Congress to see whether the trend of increasing truancy referrals has continued. An increasing number of referrals would be concerning for two reasons. First, research in the delinquency context has consistently shown that sending low-risk youth to court increases the likelihood of future misbehavior compared to community-based diversion.[7] This makes it likely that court intervention is a counter-productive way to respond to poor school attendance.

Second, Family Court has neither the capacity nor the appropriate tools to address the root causes of truancy for every student who accumulates 15 unexcused absences. Last school year, there were 4,713 students eligible for court referral.[8] If all those students were referred to court – as the law requires – then the size of the juvenile court system would more than double.[9] This would be enormously unwise given the overall lack of evidence indicating that court-based responses are effective,[10] the aforementioned findings that court referral can harm low-risk youth, and the fact that the Family Court fundamentally lacks the ability to provide services that would address issues like academic failure, lack of transportation, childcare responsibilities, poor school climate, health problems, or any of the many other attendance barriers that DC students face.

Compliance with the South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012 requirement that schools hold Student Support Team meetings is low.

In addition to court referral, the other major component of DC’s truancy response is the school-based Student Support Team (SST), which is supposed to meet after a student accumulates five unexcused absences to identify the attendance barriers faced by that individual and create a plan to address those barriers.[11] This is the part of the protocol that is supposed to ensure students receive early intervention before accumulating too many additional absences.

In practice, however, schools lack the staff resources to perform SST meetings with students in the majority of required cases. Through January of the current school year, DCPS reported that it was only 38% compliant with the requirement to hold SST meetings for students with five or more unexcused absences.[12] It is also worth noting that PCSB does not track compliance with SST meetings, so we cannot say whether the SST requirement is being followed in charter schools.[13]

Recommendations

These observations bring me to our recommendations. Yesterday, DC Lawyers for Youth and the Children’s Law Center released an in-depth report on school attendance policy in the District.[14] I have attached it to my testimony, and I hope that it will be useful to the Committee. I will focus on two of its recommendations now.

1. Require meaningful school- or community-based intervention before students can be referred to court for poor school attendance.

First, the Council should amend the DC Code to make a school’s failure to hold an SST meeting and provide appropriate supportive services an affirmative defense to truancy prosecutions. This would make the law more consistent with the Council’s intention[15] when it passed the Attendance Accountability Act: that students should receive comprehensive school- or community-based intervention first, and only be referred to court if they continue to accumulate absences once services are in place.

Indeed, DCPS and PCSB have indicated to the Truancy Task Force that they placed greater emphasis on holding SST meetings prior to court referral.[16] The DME, as co-leader of the Task Force,[17] should work to ensure that we go one step further and ensure school-based early intervention prior to court referral in every case.

2. Strengthen existing school-based early interventions.

Second, the Council should provide funding for the staff necessary for increased compliance with the SST mandate and other early intervention programs like the Justice Grants Administration’s Show Up, Stand Out, and the ACCESS Youth Truancy Intervention and Prevention Mediation Pilot Program. These sorts of programs are the ones that can actually address the root causes of poor school attendance, and they should be the focus of the District’s anti-truancy efforts.[18]

The DME should ensure that the Truancy Task Force develops a citywide strategy to scale up attendance-supporting programs to reach all the students who would benefit from them.

Conclusion

As our full report conveys, truancy is an incredibly complex issue, and the DME has an important role as co-chair of the Truancy Task Force. The data gathered by the Task Force has helped us understand this issue better, and we appreciate DME’s work so far as co-chair. To build on this success, we urge that the DME prioritize filling the vacancy for a Senior Policy Adviser for Truancy, as that staff position’s core function is “manag[ing] inter-agency coordination around anti-truancy initiatives.”[19] Such work is sorely needed in the District, and we are hopeful that the new DME will make meaningful progress in this area.

In closing, I want to thank the Committee for its commitment to student achievement and its interest in school engagement issues. We hope to work with you on these recommendations and future efforts to ensure that every student is in school every day. Thank you for the opportunity to testify, and I welcome any questions.



[1]See, e.g., Report on Bill 20-072, “Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013” (Council of the District of Columbia, Committee on Education, March 27, 2013), 4, http://lims.dccouncil.us/Download/2926/B20-0072-COMMITTEEREPORT.pdf; David Catania, Joint Public Hearing: Bill 20-072, Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 (Washington, DC, 2013), 04:29:45, http://dc.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=1589; Phil Mendelson, Joint Public Oversight Hearing: Truancy Reduction in the D.C. Public Education System (Washington, DC, 2013), 01:14:45, http://dc.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=1911.

[2]Alex Peerman, Rebecca Brink, and Eduardo Ferrer, How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, And Steps to Turn It Around (DC Lawyers for Youth and Children’s Law Center, March 2015), 10–11, https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/dcly/pages/112/attachments/original/1425925032/How_DC%E2%80%99s_Truancy_Policy_Fails_Students_And_Steps_to_Turn_it_Around.pdf?1425925032.

[3]David A. Catania et al., Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013, 2013, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20130614130043.pdf.

[4]Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, Family Court 2012 Annual Report (DC Superior Court, Family Division, March 29, 2013), 75, http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/documents/Family-Court-2012-Annual-Report.pdf.

[5]Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, Family Court 2013 Annual Report (DC Superior Court, Family Division, March 31, 2014), 80, http://www.dccourts.gov/internet/documents/Family-Court-2013-Annual-Report-to-Congress.pdf.

[6]Ibid., 106–07.

[7]Annie Salsich and Jennifer Trone, From Courts to Communities: The Right Response to Truancy, Running Away, and Other Status Offenses (Vera Institute of Justice, December 2013), 3–4, http://www.vera.org/sites/default/files/resources/downloads/from-courts-to-communities-response-to-status-offenses.pdf.

[8]Truancy Taskforce Summative Data for SY2013-2014 (Citywide Truancy Taskforce, October 2014), 22.

[9]See Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, Family Court 2013 Annual Report, 79.

[10]Brandy R. Maynard et al., Indicated Truancy Interventions: Effects on School Attendance Among Chronic Truant Students (Campbell Systematic Reviews, April 6, 2012), 7, http://www.campbellcollaboration.org/lib/download/2136/Maynard_Indicated_Truancy_Interventions_Review%2B(1).pdf.

[11]See David A. Catania, South Capitol Street Memorial Amendment Act of 2012, 2012, http://dcclims1.dccouncil.us/images/00001/20120329100554.pdf.

[12]FY14 Performance Oversight Questions (DC Public Schools, February 2015), 52, https://www.dropbox.com/sh/zg5qumu2io9pw8q/AAAlT-3WqWNRUg8O9G1IRr91a/DC%20Public%20Schools/DCPS%20FY14%20Performance%20Oversight%20Responses_Council%20Submission.pdf?dl=0.

[13]Testimony of Rashida Kennedy, Moving Past Truancy: Chronic Absenteeism in the District of Columbia, Public Roundtable before the District of Columbia State Board of Education, Truancy and Student Engagement Committee, June 12, 2014.

[14]Alex Peerman, Rebecca Brink, and Eduardo Ferrer, How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, And Steps to Turn It Around.

[15] See note 1, above.

[16]Truancy Taskforce Summative Data for SY2013-2014, 23.

[17]FY2014 Performance Oversight Questions (Deputy Mayor for Education, February 2015), 1, https://www.dropbox.com/sh/zg5qumu2io9pw8q/AACAb_vT33fFUi8VV4AJgs6Ea/Deputy%20Mayor%20for%20Education/DME%20FY%2014%20Performance%20Oversight%20Response_FINAL%20Responses.docx?dl=0.

[18] For more information, seeAlex Peerman, Rebecca Brink, and Eduardo Ferrer, How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, And Steps to Turn It Around, 14–16.

[19]FY2014 Performance Oversight Questions, 22.


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