Public Hearing On B21-0508, “School Attendance Clarification Amendment Act of 2015”

Testimony of R. Daniel Okonkwo,
Executive Director, DC Lawyers for Youth
Hearing on B21-0508, "School Attendance Clarification
Amendment Act of 2015"
January 21, 2016


Good morning Chairman Mendelson, Councilmember Grosso and members of these Committees and thank you for the opportunity to testify here today. My name is Daniel Okonkwo and I am the Executive Director of DC Lawyers for Youth (DCLY). Together with our allies who include juvenile justice advocates, defense attorneys, post-adjudication counsel, education attorneys and community-based service providers we are working to make the District’s juvenile justice system the smallest and best system. By the “smallest” I mean that the system should be reserved for only those young people for whom it is absolutely necessary and the “best” means that we want our young people to touch the system once and that is it—that they will have positive outcomes after coming into contact with the system.

DCLY is pleased that you introduced this legislation, which takes important steps to combat truancy in the District. The repeal of the “80/20 Rule,” will more appropriately tie court referrals to truancy rather than to tardiness and will ensure that a student is only considered absent if he or she misses a full school day.  Additionally, we support placing limits on disciplinary action for truancy. Suspension and expulsion are not the tools that should be used to address attendance issues.

While DCLY commends these portions of the School Clarification Amendment Act, we ask again that you revisit and repair the mandatory referral of 14 to 17 year olds to CSS and OAG after 15 unexcused absences.

Three Reasons for Our Opposition to Mandatory Referral

Councilmembers, there are three key reasons for our continued opposition to the District’s mandatory referral requirement.

First, there is no evidence guiding the District’s effort to increase school attendance through court referrals. The District has not made public any data tracking the attendance of students before and after court referral, nor compared the attendance of students referred to court to that of similarly-situated students who were not referred. Additionally, there is no data showing that court referrals even work to increase attendance.[1] In fact, available evidence shows just the opposite. Recent research indicates that court referrals are a counterproductive way to respond to poor school attendance and may actually lead to worse outcomes for truant youth. For example, the Washington State Institute on Public Policy found that students petitioned for truancy, compared to their non-petitioned peers, had worse attendance in the following year, had higher dropout rates, and committed more crimes.[2] The available evidence also indicates that court intervention for low risk youth increases the likelihood of future misbehavior as compared to community diversion.

Second, the current court referral policy merely passes the buck. The Family Court has neither the capacity nor the tools to address the root causes of truancy for every student who has accumulated 15 unexcused absences. Truancy referrals, if all accepted and placed on the PINS calendar, would dwarf the delinquency cases, making status offenses the focus of our juvenile justice system.[3] Moreover, a court referral policy does not actually address the underlying, multivariable barriers to school attendance. For example, students may miss school for personal issues with substance abuse, unmet physical/mental health needs, lack of positive peer relationships, learning disabilities, academic difficulties, parenting/pregnancy, child care for siblings, residential instability, or differing attitudes toward education.[4] There are also issues within the school that affect student engagement, ranging from school climate problems, improper class placement, insufficient support staff, and the overuse of suspensions/expulsions.[5] And some students struggle with attendance merely because of transportation issues. The court system cannot appropriately attend to all of these root causes of truancy, while also attending to delinquency cases; rather, such barriers to school attendance should be addressed within the schools and the community.

Third, mandated court referrals after 15 unexcused absences increases the administrative burden on school staff responsible for making such referrals. This diminishes our schools’ capacity to address the underlying causes of truancy and engage in meaningful intervention and support services. Already, the required SSTs (Student Support Teams) are not being implemented on a regular basis, and DCPS has stated that it cannot do so under the current staffing model.[6] Court referrals are consuming staff time and energy, which could and should be going to interventions with students and families prior to the need for any contact with the court system.

Alternatives To Mandated Court Referrals

There is no research proving the effectiveness of court referrals as a response to truancy, however, there are school- and community-based programs that have shown promise. Evaluations of federally funded truancy prevention programs found that specific efforts must be made to reengage students in school and support their academic achievement.[7] It follows that while court sanctions are insufficient unless paired with positive school climate, meaningful relationships with school staff and peers, proactive efforts to ensure that school is meeting a student’s individual needs, and high-quality instruction. This finding has prompted states such as Connecticut, Florida, Massachusetts, New York, Louisiana, and Washington to adopt anti-truancy models that keep students out of court, instead providing them with an intervention plan tailored to the youth’s individual needs.[8]

One such intervention, Student Support Teams (SST), is already supposed to be in place in the District. An SST is “a team formed to support the individual student by developing and implementing action plans and strategies that are school-based or community based, depending on the availability, to enhance the student’s success with services, incentives, intervention strategies, and consequences for dealing with absenteeism.”[9] An SST is supposed to meet after a student accumulates five unexcused absences to identify attendance barriers and create plan to address them. However, data tells us that DCPS does not always comply with this intervention prior to a court referral. PCSB does not even track its compliance with SSTs.[10]

  • For example, in SY 12-13, some schools made referrals even for students that never received an SST meeting: Anacostia referred 192 to Family Court but only held 23 meetings; HD Woodson made 182 referrals with only 2 SST meetings, and Spingarn made 117 referrals with no SST meetings.[11]
  • The first half of SY13-14 shows that only 36% of students had received an SST meeting prior to referral, and only 14% had meetings that identified barriers to attendance. Therefore, even the students who had SSTs may not have even received meaningful services or interventions prior to court referral.[12] 
  • Notably, after the passing of the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013, the Family Court received over 1,000 truancy packages from schools, of which 75% were returned to schools for “failure to demonstrate efforts to intervene and abate the truancy.”[13]
  • Even if SSTs are being used, there is no data indicating that they are following through with interventions promised or identified at the SST.


Councilmembers, we do support this legislation, however, we make the following recommendations, which are based on the principles that 1) in policy and practice, court referrals should be the last resort and occur only after a student has received quality, school-based interventions and 2) the adults in our system are held accountable for providing meaningful interventions before pushing young people into the court system.

  1. Make court referrals discretionary rather than mandatory, and require continued reporting of: # of SSTs, # of referrals, and attendance data, and continue to monitor the impact of other truancy intervention programs.
    • This can achieve a balance between enabling schools to have a stick to deal with families that do not engage while providing the flexibility and accountability for schools to do their job
  2. If referrals continue to be mandatory, the District must require meaningful school- or community-based intervention before students can be referred to court for poor school attendance. Therefore, we recommended the following statutory changes/amendments:
    • Schools should be prohibited from referring students to court absent such intervention, and Council should amend the DC Code so that a school’s failure to hold a SST meeting and provide appropriate school- and community-based supportive services prior to making a court referral, is an affirmative defense to truancy petitions.  
    • Schools should have the discretion to refrain from court referral at 15 unexcused absences if a student has begun to comply with school- and community-based interventions.
  3. Strengthen, fund, and implement evidence-based programs.
    • Strengthen existing school-based early interventions: The biggest truancy problem is in the high schools: 56% of high school students chronically truant (compared to 8% of elementary students and 10% of middle school students).[14] In effect, what we then have in this city is not a truancy problem but a functional dropout problem. The Urban Institute found that DCPS high school truancy rates are strongly predicted by the 8th grade truancy rates of incoming students, suggesting that lowering middle school absenteeism may be the most efficient means of reducing high school truancy.
    • Fund/implement new evidence-based programs to reduce truancy. Examples include, Check and Connect, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Career Academics, Flamboyan, etc.
    • Improve school climate and student engagement, specifically at high truancy schools.
    • Expand mental health services and trauma-informed care at all schools.
  4. Hire an outside evaluator to review the effectiveness of the mandatory referral program in D.C.
    • It is good public policy to ensure that the policies this body enacts are effective. Mandatory referral for truancy has been in place for a number of years now and it should be evaluated for its effectiveness. This is particularly important given that there are other non-court related programs that have been shown to be effective here in the District and in other jurisdictions.


Again, we support this legislation, but we remind the Council that to address the root causes of truancy the District needs a comprehensive, school- and community based strategy, rather than juvenile justice involvement combined with a patchwork of school-based programs. DCLY looks forward to working closely with your Committees to achieve these goals and support enhanced student achievement in the District. Thank you for your time.

[1] DC Lawyers for Youth & Children’s Law Center, How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students and Steps to Turn it Around (March 2015) (attached) [hereinafter How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students].

[2] T. Kilma et al, What Works? Targeted Truancy and Dropout Programs in Middle and High School (Olympia: Washington State Institute for Public Policy, 2009), 1-3,

[3] In calendar year 2012, the Family Court handled 222 new complaints based on a PINS allegation (truancy is a subset of PINS cases). In calendar year 2013, the Court handled 427 PINS cases, a 92% increase. This increase could have been even larger, because the Family Court received over 1,000 truancy referral packages from schools, of which 75% were returned to schools for failure to demonstrate efforts to intervene and abate truancy.” If the Family Court had accepted all of the referrals from schools and OAG sought to prosecute all of them, the increase in truancy cases would have been about three times greater than it was. See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1.

[4] See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1.

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] National Center for School Engagement.

[8] See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1.

[9] D.C. Code § 38-201(3A), 2012.

[10] See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1 (citing DCPS Performance Oversight Responses, FY14) (citing testimony of Rashida Kennedy, Public Roundtable before the District of Columbia State Board of Education, Truancy and Student Engagement Committee. June 12, 2014).

[11] See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1 (citing DCPS Performance Oversight Responses, FY14).

[12] Id. (citing DCPS Performance Oversight Responses, SY12-13 & SY13-14).

[13] Hon. Lee F. Satterfield, Family Court 2012 Annual Report, 106-107.

[14] See How DC’s Truancy Policy Fails Students, supra note 1.

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