In the past few years, school attendance in the District has been improving. For example, the in-seat attendance rate in DC Public Schools increased 2% from the 2012-13 school year to the 2013-14 school year. However, some aspects of the District's attendance policy need to be improved. In particular, the Attendance Accountability Amendment Act of 2013 reduced the number of days that students can be absent before they are eligible for court referral. After this change, the number of complaints in Family Court based on an allegation that a child is "in need of supervision" (a category that includes truancy cases) increased by 92%. These additional court referrals are likely to be counter-productive given that research shows placing low-risk youth under court supervision increases their likelihood of future misbehavior.
In addition, punitive responses like court referral should not be used unless students have received early intervention that provides support they need to attend school. Some students do not attend because their families rely on them to care for younger siblings. Others are consistently late because they do not have money to take the Metro. Others are struggling in class so much that school seems more painful than helpful. Others face health or mental health barriers that prevent them from attending consistently. Each student's situation is different, and positive support services should always be the first tool that we use to engage students with inconsistent attendance. Despite these facts, DC Public Schools was only able to hold a "student support team" meeting that would provide such services for 38% of the students eligible for one during the first semester of this school year.
This report provides theoretical background on the reasons that some students fail to consistently attend school, presents data on the characteristics of DC students with high truancy rates, explains DC’s current truancy response policies, shows that the preventative elements of that response are under-funded, uses Family Court data to show that recent legal changes have driven a dramatic increase in truancy referrals, documents the lack of evidence that court prosecution is an effective way to get students to attend school, and shows that a truly effective response will require greater investments in school- and community-based services.
The report concludes with recommendations on how to improve DC’s school attendance policy:
- Improve the school climate and student engagement at high-truancy schools.
- Strengthen existing school-based early interventions.
- Implement evidence-based programs proven to reduce truancy.
- Expand mental health services to all schools.
- Revise the “80/20 rule” to allow schools to better distinguish between students who are
chronically tardy and chronically absent.
- Require meaningful school- or community-based intervention before students can be
referred to court for poor school attendance.